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Alaska Life

‘Runaway Train’ is a hidden gem in the history of movies filmed in Alaska

  • Author: David Reamer
    | Histories of Anchorage
  • Updated: April 11
  • Published April 11

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Screenshot of the movie Runaway Train.

Screenwriters, directors and studios have a long history of setting films in Alaska. These movies have ranged from silent films to buddy comedies to animated features to thrillers and every other genre imaginable. Yet too many of those movies are difficult to watch, often poorly aged or of negligible original value. Hidden gems do exist, like the 1986 action film “Runaway Train.” It was both set in and partially shot in Alaska. Moreover, it is a treasure trove of trivia worthy of modern reconsideration.

The most shocking bit of trivia about a train movie set in Alaska is that it began as an original script by the legendary Japanese auteur, Akira Kurosawa. Inspired by a real-life runaway train incident between Syracuse and Rochester, New York, the “Seven Samurai” director finished the script by the summer of 1966. Shooting was scheduled to begin that fall on what was to be his first film shot in color. However, translation and other cultural barriers intervened. Kurosawa, accustomed to complete project control, soon wearied of the back-and-forth dialogue with the American production crew, and the film was canceled shortly before shooting was to begin.

From there, the script spent more than a decade passing from studio to studio before winding up at the notorious Cannon Films. Cannon began as a softcore porn studio before its 1979 purchase by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. They immediately transitioned the studio into a low-budget sequel and B-movie machine, producing such representative films as “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” “Ninja III: The Domination,” “Missing in Action,” “Delta Force,” “American Ninja,” “Over the Top,” “Lifeforce,” “Cobra,” and “Cyborg.”

An ad ran in the March 26, 1985 edition of the Anchorage Daily News looking for actors to be in the film Runaway Train.

Most of their movies were panned by critics and adored by video rental stores. Critic Roger Ebert offered a backhand compliment to their shotgun approach to filmmaking. In “Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook,” he wrote, “No other production organization in the world today — certainly not any of the seven Hollywood ‘majors’ — has taken more chances with serious, marginal films than Cannon.”

By 1984, the now heavily altered script was at Cannon Films and handed to Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, perhaps more famous to Americans at the time as actress Shirley MacLaine’s lover, given his prominent if slightly disguised role in one of her memoirs. He was later fired as the director of the 1989 Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell buddy cop picture, “Tango & Cash,” which was itself one of the last two movies released during the 1980s.

Academy Award-winner Jon Voight was signed to play the lead role of escaped prisoner Oscar “Manny” Manheim. The actor has also won four Golden Globes but may be more famous as the father of actress Angelina Jolie. Robert Duvall, of “Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Days of Thunder fame,” was also considered for the part. Eric Roberts plays Manheim’s escape partner, Buck. Like Voight, Roberts is an accomplished veteran actor overshadowed by famous relatives: sister Julia and daughter Emma Roberts.

Two years after her “Risky Business” breakout, Rebecca De Mornay played a railyard hostler, Sara, who gets taken along for the ride.

“Runaway Train” also offered the first on-screen roles for two popular character actors. Danny Trejo played an unnamed inmate, looking shockingly young to those more familiar with his grizzled visage in later work like the 2010 “Machete.” However, his trademark chest tattoo of a woman wearing a sombrero is clearly visible during a boxing match. Tom “Tiny” Lister Jr., of “Friday,” “The Fifth Element,” and “No Holds Barred,” played a prison guard who unwittingly helps Manny and Buck escape.

Principal photography was conducted across several states, from February to May 1985. In addition to Alaska, scenes were also shot in Montana and California. During the Alaska location scouting, Konchalovsky reportedly placed his head in his hands and declared, “My God! This place has been created for my film.” The Alaska Railroad (ARR) was a delighted partner, although they prohibited the film from displaying the ARR name.

Screenshot of the movie Runaway Train.

Alaska shooting employed four ARR locomotives and took place between Girdwood and Whittier, primarily on the railroad’s main track. Regular traffic was not altered, so the crew had to repeatedly pull their trains onto sidings. Exterior train shots, bridge crossings, helicopter stunts, and a crash were filmed in Alaska. An Army oil storage facility in Whittier became a chemical plant. The interior train closeups of the stars were filmed in California.

During their time in Alaska, the cast and crew stayed in Girdwood, including Voight, Roberts and De Mornay. Voight especially was taken by the scenery and tried skiing for the first time. De Mornay was accompanied by her “Risky Business” co-star, Tom Cruise.

Though Alaska was an enjoyable experience for most, a deadly helicopter crash marred production. On March 9, 1985, pilot Rick Holley was scouting the area ahead of that day’s shooting when he snagged some power lines about 13 miles south of Portage. He was discovered dead at the scene.

While the shooting in Alaska was relatively brief, the sight of a heavily damaged train engine constantly surrounded by a multitude of cameras surprised many travelers along the Seward Highway. An elderly tourist couple was especially shocked, thinking they had stumbled upon an epic tragedy. They contacted the newspapers but were shocked again to learn they had instead discovered Hollywood magic.

Spoilers begin here for those who might want to watch the movie first. Compared to the convoluted backstory of the project, the actual plot is straightforward. The film opens on the fictional Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison located somewhere in the Alaska wilderness. Stonehaven is grimy, dark and constantly damp. Steam leaks from seemingly every wall. Expository dialogue reveals that the average sentence at Stonehaven is 22 years. Even so, the prison was also a shelter from the “30 below out there” temperatures outside its walls.

The first 15 minutes are primarily spent establishing Manny’s hardcore credentials. Having twice before escaped from prison, the Stonehaven warden keeps him “welded in his cell for three years.” A court ruling ends this practice. Before releasing him from his sealed cell, the warden tells a guard, who presumably already knew about Manny, “He believes in nothing, and he’s capable of anything.” If that was not enough, another prisoner later shivs Manny twice, in the chest and hand. These injuries barely hinder him, if at all, until late in the movie.

Buck, a hero-worshipping younger prisoner, hides Manny in a laundry cart and rolls him past the guards and into an isolated shed. After a unique scene where the leads strip nude and slather themselves with grease to stave off the extreme cold, they enter the underground sewers and work their way out of the prison and into an icy river.

After a wintry run across the snow, the escapees stow aboard a train of four linked engines. At the same time, the train’s elderly engineer dramatically suffers an unrelated heart attack right after opening the throttle. As he collapses, the engineer engages the brakes, which burn out, thus creating the titular runaway train.

From there, the movie dashes even more directly toward its conclusion. Dispatchers clear the tracks but not before the runaway crashes through the caboose of another train as the latter attempted to pull onto a siding. More than halfway through the film, Manny and Buck discover a formerly napping hostler, Sara. Meanwhile, the persistent warden follows them in a helicopter.

After a series of arguments and near-deaths, Manny leaps to the damaged lead engine. He fights and defeats the warden — dropped off by the helicopter — and uncouples the lead engine from the rest of the train, saving Buck and Sara. The lead engine barrels on, but instead of a bombastic end, the movie turns quiet. Manny climbs to the top of the engine, arms wide and embracing his rapidly approaching death. The screen blurs, and a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III appears: “No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore am no beast.” Then credits.

Spoilers end here. “Runaway Train” debuted in theaters on January 17, 1986. Critics were generally kind. Gene Siskel offered a measured review, awarding it two and a half stars and criticizing its repetitiveness. He said of its repeated exterior shots of the train thundering through snow, “It’s enough to make you want to walk home from the theater.” On the other hand, Roger Ebert unabashedly praised the film’s cast, character development, “spectacular stunts,” and ending, which he described as “astonishing in its emotional impact.”

On January 15, 1986, Anchorage’s Fireweed Theatre hosted a premiere party. None of the stars attended, but ARR executives and local actors who worked on the film as extras awkwardly rubbed shoulders in the theater’s tiny foyer. ARR chief engineer Obie Weeks was a notable celebrity, having managed to obtain a speaking role.

Despite positive reviews, the movie was a box-office failure, recouping only $7.7 million on an estimated $9 million budget. The film fared better at award season, becoming one of the very few Cannon Films projects to receive major award consideration. It was nominated for, but did not win, three Academy Awards: Voight for best actor, Roberts for best supporting actor and best film editing. Voight did win a Golden Globe for best actor in a drama, with the film and Roberts also receiving losing nominations for best drama and best supporting actor.

“Runaway Train” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray but is unavailable to stream. While far from a perfect movie, it is worth the effort to find a copy. And better yet, the next time you drive down the Turnagain Arm, you’ll know that you’re passing the site of some cinematic history.

Key sources:

American Film Institute. “Runaway Train (1985).” AFI Catalog, n.d., catalog.afi.com/Catalog/MovieDetails/58337.

Combs, John. “Runaway Train.” John’s Alaska Railroad Web Page, December 18, 2020, alaskarails.org/sf/film/runaway-train/.

Cunningham, Beth. “‘Train Wreck’ Derails Motorists.” Anchorage Times, April 4, 1985, B-1.

Ebert, Roger. Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Ebert, Roger. “Runaway Train.” RogerEbert.com, January 17, 1986, rogerebert.com/reviews/runaway-train-1986

Gluckman, Ron. “Lights, Camera, Action Head to Anchorage for Train Movie.” Anchorage Times, January 16, 1985, A-1, A-12.

Killoran, Nancy. “Celebrities Leave Starry Eyes in Girdwood.” Anchorage Times, April 22, 1985, B-1.

McFarland, Harry. “‘Runaway’ Resumes Filming After Fatal Chopper Crash.” Anchorage Times, March 11, 1985, B-3.

Siskel, Gene. “‘Runaway Train’ Should Put on the Brakes.” Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1986, chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1986-01-17-8601050074-story.html.

Stadem, Catherine. “Locals Ride ‘Runaway Train.’” Anchorage Times, January 17, 1986, D-1-D-2.


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