The story concerns two escaped convicts and a female railroad worker who are stuck on a runaway train as it barrels through snowy desolate Alaska. Voight and Roberts were both nominated for Academy Awards for their respective roles.
Oscar "Manny" Manheim is a ruthless bank robber and hero to the convicts of Alaska's Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. After two previous escape attempts, Manny was put in solitary confinement for three years. A court order compels sadistic Associate Warden Ranken to release him from solitary. Planning a third break out, Manny is forced to advance his plan to mid-winter after he is stabbed. Manny recruits young prisoner Buck McGeehy to help in the complicated plan. After a freezing cross-country hike, including a swim across a freezing river, the two hop on board a train.
After the men stow away, the elderly railroad engineer has a heart attack. As the driverless train accelerates, dispatchers Dave Prince and Frank Barstow are alerted to the situation. They try to keep the tracks clear, but the runaway smashes the caboose of another train. The collision damages the cab of the lead locomotive and jams the front door of the second engine, an old EMD F-unit. The convicts are now aware something is wrong. Barstow's superior Eddie McDonald orders him to derail the train.
At this point the train's horn blows, alerting the authorities (and the two fugitives) that someone is on the train. Barstow cancels the derailment. Ranken concludes that his two escaped convicts are fleeing by rail. Meanwhile, the two fugitives are discovered by Sara, a locomotive hostler, who explains that she sounded the horn and that the train is out of control. She convinces them that jumping off the train would be suicidal and explains that the only way to stop the train would be to climb into the lead engine and press its kill switch, a near-impossible feat.
The dispatchers divert the runaway onto a branch after determining it is only five minutes away from a head-on collision. Further ahead the train has a tight curve near a chemical plant. Barstow agrees that they must crash it, thus condemning the three people, rather than risk a chemical explosion. Warden Ranken forces Barstow to help him reach the train by helicopter.
Manny tries to force Buck into a suicidal scramble around the outside of the second engine's frozen nose. Sara's intervention on Buck's behalf forces an armed face-off. Emotionally broken, all three slump into depression. Suddenly Ranken's accomplice dies trying to board the lead engine via helicopter—Ranken has now caught up with the train.
Spurred on by the appearance of his arch-enemy and resolved not to return to prison, Manny makes a perilous leap to the lead engine. He barely makes it, crushing his hand. Ranken boards the locomotive from the helicopter, but Manny ambushes him and handcuffs him. Ranken orders Manny to stop the train before it crashes, but Manny has chosen to die rather than be recaptured. When reminded of Buck and Sara in the second engine, Manny uncouples his out-of-control lead engine. He waves goodbye, ignoring Buck's screaming pleas to shut down the lead engine, and climbs onto the roof of the lone engine in the freezing snow, his arms stretched out, ready to meet his end. Buck and Manny's fellow inmates mourn in their cells as the lone engine disappears into the storm. The film closes with an on-screen quote from William Shakespeare's Richard III:
"No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity."
"But I know none, and therefore am no beast."
Akira Kurosawa wrote the original screenplay intending it to be his first color film following Red Beard, but difficulties with the American financial backers led to it being shelved.
The Alaska Railroad decided that their name and logo would not be shown. Several scenes referred to the railroad as "A&E Northern." The filming took place near Portage Glacier, Whittier, and Grandview.
Principal photography began on March 13, 1985 at the Butte, Anaconda, & Pacific Roundhouse in Anaconda, Montana. During filming, the crew realized they didn't have any real snow, due to warm temperatures (a false spring) in the area. They used Christmas Tree flock for fake snow, and they had to keep it from melting on the tracks at the west yard. Cannon Films had to cut short its stay in Anaconda, and they moved onto Deer Lodge, Montana to film the prison scenes at the Old Montana State Prison. Approximately 200 extras were hired to participate to play prisoners in the scenes. They spent a week filming several scenes at the prison. Finally the second unit team went to Whittier Branch, Alaska to film on the Alaska Railroad tracks. The Bridge sequence was filmed on the Seneca Bridge on Placer Creak, about 5 miles (8 km) near Whittier. The scene where Jordan makes the switch on the tracks was filmed at Portage, Alaska. The cast and crew went to the Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, California to film the interior of the train scenes and the prisoners' escape scene. Filming was finally completed in late April 1985.
The runaway train's lineup in the movie consisted of four Alaska Railroad locomotives, all built by EMD: GP40-2 #3010, F7 #1500, and #1801 and #1810, both GP7s. The latter two locomotives had previously been rebuilt by ARR with low short hoods as opposed to a GP7's original high short hood, but were fitted with mock-up high hoods made of plywood for the film, branded with fictional numbers 531 and 812, respectively. Because #1801's cab had been reconstructed prior to filming, the '531' prosthetic hood stood slightly higher than the normal hood height of a GP7 in order to fit over the locomotive's number-board.
The locomotives used in the film have gone their separate ways:ARR GP40-2 #3010 is still active on the Alaska Railroad, painted in the new corporate scheme.
http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=447560&nseq=12ARR F7 #1500 was retired from service in 1992, is now at the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry Museum in Wasilla, AK as can be seen on the front page of their website http://www.museumofalaska.org/
http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=374710&nseq=0ARR GP7 #1810 was sold to the Oregon Pacific Railroad and operated as OP #1810. In 2008, the unit was sold to the Cimarron Valley Railroad and is now permanently coupled to former OP Slug #1010.
http://www.rrpicturearchives.net/showPicture.aspx?id=1063793ARR GP7 #1801 was sold to a locomotive leasing company in Kansas City, MO, then sold to the Missouri Central Railroad and operated as MOC #1800. The locomotive subsequently appeared in another motion picture, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, in 1995. MOC became the Central Midland Railroad in 2002. As Central Midland had their own leased power, MOC 1800 was returned to Midwest Locomotive In Kansas City. Shortly after, it was then sold the Respondek Rail Corp of Granite City, IL and is now used on Respondek's Port Harbor Railroad subsidiary. The unit's identification is RRC #1800. As of 2015, the locomotive has been stored, out of service, needing wheel work. A return to service on the Port Harbor Railroad is unlikely, as there is talk about sending the unit to another Respondek Operation.
http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=504201&nseq=0The train that was hit by the runaway was led by MRS-1 #1605. This unit had been retired in 1984, one year before filming started. The unit has since been cut up for scrap.
Sequences set at the rail yard, shot on the Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railway in Anaconda, Montana, used local locomotives from the BA&P fleet along with former Northern Pacific EMD F9 #7012A, leased from the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad. The two GP7s and the F9 were fitted with plywood boxes to duplicate the distinctive 'winterization hatches' carried on their Alaskan counterparts.
BA&P EMD GP38-2 #109, the BA&P locomotive used in the yard scenes as the lead-engine in place of ARR #3010, was subsequently sold to the Alaska Railroad and remains in service there as #2002, along with sister unit #2001 (ex-BA&P #108).
Richard (Rick) Holley was killed prior to start of principal photography when the helicopter he was piloting hit power lines while scouting for shoot locations in Alaska. The film is dedicated to him during the closing credits.
Runaway Train had its premiere in New York City on November 15, 1985, followed by its limited release in 965 theatres on December 6, 1985. It made $2,601,480 on that weekend. It was released nationwide on January 17, 1986 and was well received by critics, but failed to find an audience. It opened in 8th place its premiere weekend, and failed to make back its production cost. The film also had a premiere in Anaconda, Montana at the Washoe Theatre on March 20, 1986. Invitations for the premiere were sent to people from the department of Commerce, Rarus Railroad and Cannon Films personnel, as well as Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca DeMornay. However, none of the actors could attend. The film made $7,936,012 worldwide.
Runaway Train received generally positive reviews, and holds an 87% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Janet Maslin, writing for The New York Times, felt that much of the film was absurd but that Jon Voight's performance was excellent, and she credits the film for "crude energy and bravado." In 2010, movie critic Michael Phillips said on his show At the Movies that it was the most under-rated movie of the 1980s. Roger Ebert awarded the film four out of four stars.
In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films. Runaway Train was listed at 64th place on this list.
The film was entered into the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.