There are plenty of very good films either set within a train or featuring extended sequences involving a train. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest (the former took place almost entirely on a train, the later had some great sequences within a train) are two good examples. Others include the first Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor film, The Silver Streak. There’s the original The Narrow Margin, considered by many one of the best B movies ever made. Perhaps Agatha Christie’s best novel, which was twice made into pretty good films, Murder on the Orient Express, takes place almost entirely on the aforementioned train.
Alas, the 1979 film Avalanche Express, which takes place almost entirely on a train traveling through scenic Europe, doesn’t belong in this list.
What a strange, strange film. Here’s the trailer:
Perhaps no film is known as much for the misfortunes that happened behind the scenes rather than the film itself than 1979’s Avalanche Express.
Both Producer/Director Mark Robson (who is known for, among others, another “train” film, Von Ryan’s Express) and actor Robert Shaw both died during the film’s production. While Robert Shaw appears to have completed most of his scenes, he was quite sick during the making of the film and his dialogue was ultimately almost completely dubbed. Quite badly, I might add.
Oh, and to be clear: There are a few sequences here and there where we see the back of Robert Shaw’s character and I’m assuming that was a stand-in, though there isn’t anything along the lines of Bela Lugosi’s clumsy replacement in Plan 9 From Outer Space. Nonetheless, there is one major plot element missing which I’ll get to in a moment which may be explained because Robert Shaw was no longer around to film it.
The film opens with Robert Shaw’s character, Soviet General Marenkov, having a meeting with his fellow Soviet Union/Communist bigwigs. Among them is Maximillian Schell’s Colonel Nikolai Bunin, who is told to leave the room for a moment while Marenkov talks about how their computer systems are being breached. Marenkov makes some snide remarks to Bunin after the meeting that he was in charge of the security, and then they talk briefly about how to find the mole in Europe.
Next thing we know, we’re introduced to Lee Marvin’s spy group. This group consists of Haller (Mike Connors, the leader or co-leader of this group, its never made terribly clear), Elsa Lang (Linda Evans), Leroy (Joe Namath (!!!!)), and of course Lee Marvin’s Colonel Harry Wargrave.
They’re a sorta/kinda Mission: Impossible group of professionals who are stationed in Europe and deal with the Soviets during these waning days of the Cold War.
Sadly, Lee Marvin was looking rather old for this action role and especially too old to be the Linda Evans’ love interest but there you have it.
While its never explained very well (this might be where a sequence was not filmed due to Robert Shaw’s passing), they are informed Marenkov has defected.
Again, it isn’t explained how we went from Marenkov briefing Communist big-wigs into looking into a mole in Europe to him defecting. If I understand it right, General Marenkov is disillusioned with the Soviet Union’s …uh… terrorist ways?… I think, and Bunin, who he was talking with in the movie’s opening act, is one of the people who are using the Soviet Union’s security apparatus to cause the terrorism. Now that he’s defected, Bunin is after Marenkov and wants to eliminate him.
Marenkov defects directly to Wargrave and his group and they realize that this is a superb opportunity to clean out all of Europe of the worst “hawkish”/terrorist elements of the Soviet Union.
By dangling Marenkov as bait on a trip through Europe by train and then take out all the bad guys as they come after him. Marenkov, as it turns out, wants to be used this way but, again, we seem to be missing a few sequences explaining why he’s willing to go along with this dangerous -to him!- plan.
Avalanche Express was completed by cult director Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop) but the end result is a very odd bird of a film, an action/adventure/intrigue Cold War spy film which features one major sequence that feels like it belongs in your typical 1970’s era “disaster” film.
That sequence, involving the avalanche which the movie’s name is derived from, occurs roughly at the halfway point of the film and, while a decent scene (for its time, anyway) it doesn’t have a lot of logic to it either. The avalanche must be damn slow moving -or coming from a mountain that is literally miles up- for the passengers of the train to both know its coming and then have the time to come up with a way to escape being swept away in the nick of time.
Further, there’s also this sequence earlier on where Bunin’s people stop and have a huge shoot out with those on the train, breaking windows and putting many holes in the train’s body… while the other passengers are still inside!
Once the shoot out and avalanche are done and they reach their destination, its like the passengers have completely forgotten what happened and the train’s bullet holes and broken windows seem to have fixed themselves and they off load as if nothing serious happened to them!
Maybe back in the late 1970’s and during the height of the Cold War, it was a given that riding the rails through Europe involved extreme dangers?!
These are just some of the absurdities you’ll find in this film, and I haven’t even gotten to the very end which features -MILD SPOILERS!- the use of torpedoes (yes, you read that right) and the appearance of one Joe Namath as Leroy, a character that feels like it could have been played by any then semi-popular ex-football players. Hell, if Namath wasn’t available, I’m sure they would have pivoted to O. J. Simpson. It wouldn’t have mattered, truly.
Yet for all its absurdity, Avalanche Express nonetheless kinda entertained me… so long as I let it roll along without thinking too terribly hard about all those absurdities.
The question is: Is it a good film?
Hell no, but with a cast as large and varied as this one, there’s so much stuff to see and enjoy -even for laughs- and given the film’s relatively short runtime (the movie runs just shy of 1 hour and a half) you’re not going to lose too much of your time watching it.
Would I recommend the film?
Only to those who are interested in the actors involved and are particularly interested in seeing Robert Shaw’s final performance.
Otherwise, check out The Silver Streak.