Saturday, June 24, 2017

Rocky Mountain Express (2011)


Rocky Mountain Express is a documentary film about Canada’s first transcontinental railway. It premiered in Canada and the US in 2011. In 2016 it was released on Blu-Ray (4K - Ultra HD). Here is some basic information about it:

*** Writer and director: Stephen Low
*** Photographer: Stephen Low
*** Producer: Pietro L. Serapiglia and Alexander Low
*** Editor: James Lahti 

*** Original musical score composed by Michel Cusson
*** Aerial photography by Ralph Mendoza
*** Helicopter pilot: Steve Flynn
*** Narrator: Michael Hanrahan
*** Run time: 46 minutes

Stephen Low is a Canadian filmmaker. He is also a railway buff. For many years he had been dreaming about making a documentary film about Canada’s first transcontinental railway, but he could not find the money to finance the project.

When he heard that the Canadian railway company (CPR) was going to restore an old steam locomotive, known as the 2816, he realized that this was his chance to make a film about the old railway and to use an old steam locomotive in the leading role.

He was able to make a deal with the railway company and thus the project could begin. It was going to be a long project. Filming and editing took more than five years. Stephen Low wanted to make sure that he got everything right. And I think he did.

The film starts very slowly. First, there is a picture of the man who was in charge of the project: William Cornelius Van Horne (1843-1915). Next, there is a picture of an old steam locomotive. We are looking into the furnace. But there is no fire. It looks very old. There is no movement at all. But then something happens: a flame appears in the furnace, and now we can see that we are on a real steam locomotive and it is moving!

From this point the story takes off and never stops until we get to the end. We learn about the difficult and dangerous explorations to find a suitable route through the mountains and we learn about the construction of the first transcontinental railway (1881-1885) as well as alternative lines that were added in the 20th century.

The narrator, Michael Hanrahan, tells us what happened, step by step. His narration is accompanied by music composed by Michel Cusson and by four types of images:

# 1. Images filmed by cameras mounted on the train. In the front, in the back, and on the sides.

# 2. Images filmed from a helicopter that flies over the mountains, over the train, and along the train.

# 3. CGI, computer generated images, which are used to show us the mountainous Canadian landscape in three dimensions.

# 4. Old historical photographs (in black-and-white) that were taken during the construction of the railway.

The narration, the musical score and the four types of images come together to form a perfect unity. When you are watching this film, you will see many things you cannot see if you are travelling as a passenger on the train. You will watch the train from strange but fascinating angles.

If you are a passenger, you can, of course, see the mountains around you, but you cannot see the train from above. As a passenger, you can, of course, sit in the rear carriage and look backwards, but you cannot sit in the locomotive and look forward.

The camera catches the moment when the train enters a tunnel, and the moment when the train exits a tunnel. The camera is placed on the ground very close to the track in order to catch the moment when the train passes by. But you are not supposed to sit very close to the track, because it is dangerous.

This film tells us how the railway was built. We hear about the difficulties and about the accomplishments. We hear about the setbacks that happened from time to time.

As stated above, Stephen Low is a railway buff, but he does not look at the railway through rose-coloured glasses. He is honest about the failures that happened while the project was underway. The transcontinental railway was a great accomplishment, but there was a serious price to pay. Several workers lost their lives while the railway was being built.

What do reviewers say about this film? On IMDb it has a rating of 80 per cent. On Rotten Tomatoes it has an audience score of 77 per cent. Both average ratings correspond to four stars on Amazon. If you ask me, they are too low.

On the US version of Amazon there are 54 reviews of this product. The average rating is 4.6 stars. If you ask me, this average rating is more appropriate. I want to go all the way to the top with this product. I think it deserves a rating of five stars.

If you are interested in the history of trains, including the history of engineering and technology, this film is definitely something for you.

PS # 1. William Cornelius Van Horne, the man who was in charge of the project, worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway for many years: he was general manager 1882-1884; vice-president 1884-1888; and president 1888-1899.

PS # 2. In the US, the first transcontinental railroad was built 1863-1869, i.e. several years before the Canadian line. The history of the US railroad is covered in an episode of the long-running program American Experience: Transcontinental Railroad (shown on television 2003, released on DVD 2006).


Rocky Mountain Express


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