Rocky Mountain Express — a film review

The Empress steams alongside a river in a still from the fil, Rocky Mountain Express. No. 2816 is a familiar sight here and is the star of this film. Photo courtesy of The Stephen Low Company

Editor’s Note:

As previously telegraphed by our new columnist, Tom Parkin (Where Were You in ’62?), a recently-released IMAX film has opened on the Wet Coast. Forty-five minutes long, it’s about the history of the CPR in the western mountains, and the mechanism for linking the disparate sites along the mainline, the Cranbrook Subdivision, and the Windermere Sub, is refurbished steam locomotive #2816. Knowing the movie mentions Revelstoke and Rogers Pass, TRC sent its intrepid reporter to the theatre. Over to you, Tom:

Victoria, reviewer Parkin:

Hello David. I’m reporting from the provincial capital today, having just seen one of IMAX’s newest releases, called Rocky Mountain Express. In B.C., IMAX theatres here at the Royal B.C. Museum and at Science World in Vancouver, will show this film well into the summer. Don’t just take my opinion of it — it’s great! Current reader Doug Morris said so on-line already, and a meagre eastern competitor — you’re heard of the National Post?—ran a review after the flic opened last fall in Ottawa. Their on-line post features a nice panorama of our resplendent burg, not unlike the photo header of your eminent paper:

I expect most readers will be familiar with the crystal-clear images, the surround sound, and the six-storey screen of IMAX. It’s impressive, even if the camera doesn’t move. Imagine then, swooping by helicopter through the exhaust plume of a steam locomotive working her way uphill through Illecillewaet Canyon, flanges squealing on the curves, and imperious Sir Donald still holding sway over that landscape since the time of the dinosaurs.

One thing I find aggravating about being a history buff is that I can’t get enough sensory experience of what I love. What boy, past or present, doesn’t wish to sit in the right-hand seat of a locomotive? Hell, I’ve even met women with loco lust — it wasn’t just Casey Jones who liked to put his head out the window to watch the drivers roll. But cab rides are much too rare, and to watch the intricate movements of drive rods and valve gear from coaches is too distant. You get a better look from trackside, of course — maybe for eight seconds. Producer Stephen Lowe’s solution was to hang a camera off the locomotive chassis and highball! This he did a number of times, to my everlasting satisfaction. Oh, oh, be still, my racing heart! Sometimes I think manufacturers of those generic “romantic mood CDs” (the ones played on hot dates) should offer a long-playing steam locomotive while underway. Railfans would find it very sexy.

Like Big Bopper in Chantilly Lace, RME’s producer clearly loves his subject. The award-winning soundtrack features good music and lotsa steam whistles. No need for in-studio reverb effects here — the slapback from adjacent rockcuts play a crescendo like a hollow room in one of lower Farwell’s early sporting houses: “… makes me act so funny, makes me spend my money/Oh baby, you know what I like.”

Whew! Oh yes, amidst all these joyful shrieks are some lovely historic images which any railroad historian will recognize. The individuals aren’t all identified, but few locals could fail to recognize Major Rogers. Reviewer Chris Knight (above), acclaimed him as “winner of the 1882 craziest-beard award from Muttonchop Monthly.” Rogers won credit for pulling the C.P.R.’s proverbial butt from the bonfire, but nowadays would have gone straight to jail without his $5,000 bonus, for employee abuse.

Other B&W shots I liked was a mixed group of Donald residents on a picnic to Rogers Pass in 1895, before Donald was abandoned as a divisional point in favour of Revelstoke. Standing on the boiler of locomotive #401 (were hotfoots not known in his day?) is Thomas Kilpatrick, later CPR superintendent and mayor of Revelstoke, whose papers are now contained in several archives, including those here in Victoria, next door to where I’m presently standing. I’ve been using them to research my historical novel set in Rogers Pass.

Okay David, I think you get the picture — see this picture. It’s beautifully made, it does Revelstoke proud, and you can even meet the star (#2816) next time she passes through town. She’s a piece of living history, and a reminder that, railfans or not, Revelstokians stand on the shoulders of giants.

© Tom W. Parkin 

While it doesn’t appear to be a film coming to Revelstoke anytime soon, you can — if you’re going to Victoria — see it on an IMAX screen there. If you’d like a glimpse of this spectacular film, please click here to see the trailer.

Rocky Mountain Express has won an award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors and established its own Wikipedia page. This latter source should answer most reader’s questions about how the film was made: