Even without a soundtrack by Gordon Lightfoot, the Rocky Mountain Express does a great job of evoking the romance of the sprawling railroad system that knitted a very young Canada together over 100 years ago. Part history lesson, part travelogue and part mash note to a beautiful old steam engine, this film is truly a labour of love. Written and directed by IMAX veteran Stephen Low (Super Speedway, Titanica), Express took five years to make and is well worth waiting for.
Most British Columbians probably remember their Grade 10 history about how our province would only join Confederation if there was a railway connection between Vancouver and Central Canada. The narration for Express adds a lot of the details that most of us have likely forgotten, ranging from the sometimes-torturous route, the grotesque death toll (six fatalities for every mile of track) and the desperate business risk that the railway represented. In order to keep American railway competitors at bay, the decision was made early on to take the much more challenging southern route through towering mountain ranges where no pass had yet been identified … and might not even exist. That gamble nearly bankrupted the youthful Canadian Pacific Railway, but ultimately contributed to one of the most notable railway systems in the world.
As the protracted history of first the scouting and then the slow, dangerous and risky construction of the railway system unfolds via dozens of fascinating archival photographs, that lively historical account full of human drama and incredible feats of engineering is interwoven with a separate, present-day narrative featuring Engine 2816, a handsome steam locomotive that was lovingly restored over several years to make it ready for its starring role in this film.
A gorgeous black behemoth with gleaming, brass-framed dials and brutally powerful pistons, coal-powered 2816 belches clouds of grey-white smoke as it thunders along much of the historic route, from the Fraser River floodplain and the Fraser Canyon through to the Thompson River, Revelstoke, Field and finally the formidable Rocky Mountains. Nearly fetishistic close-ups of the engine room are contrasted with graceful images of the train chuffing its way through some of B.C.’s most beautiful scenery, shot from both onboard the train and from overhead with the help of a gyro-helicopter. If these postcard-worthy scenes don’t make you yearn for a carefree railroading holiday, you probably need immediate medical attention to see if you still have a pulse.
Rocky Mountain Express ★★★½
Directed by Stephen Low
Starring Engine 2816 and crew
G – 40 minutes
Continues at the IMAX