Thomas and the Fury Railroad (2000)
Alec Baldwin (Mr. Conductor), Cody McMains (Nux), Peter Fonda (Immortan Burnett Stone), Mara Wilson (Lily), Edward Glen (Thomas), Neil Crone (Diesel 10)
“Hello. My name is Mr. Conductor, and I’m going to tell you a story about trains.” – Mr. Conductor
It really is sickening the way children’s entertainment has been dumbed down for today’s kids. As someone with a small child myself I’m disgusted to find that the entertainment meant for my son features almost no swear words and not a single beheading. How am I supposed to expose him to Boondock Saints and Kids when he turns six with weaksauce movies for babies like Coraline and Krampus tucking him in and telling him everything’s going to be alright.
When I was a kid, movies never pandered to children. Who can forget the multiple infanticide of Look Who’s Talking With a Vengeance or the extremely graphic Trail of Tears massacre scene from The Indian and the Cupboard, not to mention the Kubrickian madness of Milo and Otis. One of the best films of my childhood (and to be fair I was in junior high at this point) was Thomas and the Fury Railroad.
Now for those unaware, Thomas and the Fury Railroad is based on a series of dystopian novels and was adapted into a British TV show that was shown as short segments in the US on a show called Shining Time Station. Shining Time was a show about a magical train station where a tiny conductor regaled children with stories of the apocalyptic hellscape from which he hailed.
You see, in some far off future, machines gain sentience and decide to kill their human controllers. The world falls within a week and mankind is on the brink of extinction. But on an island far away a man manages to take control of the machines and bend them to his will, creating a pocket utopia. The man, dubbed “The Fat Controller” turns his island paradise into a refuge for any humans who can make it there. He takes on the preposterous moniker of “Sir Topham Hatt” and dubs the island “Sodor.” Within a decade Hatt, now an apocalyptic warlord, has broken a fleet of trains and a few other assorted vehicles into being his willing slaves, he rules them with an iron fist and distracts them from their murderous urges with a drive to be “really useful.”
Fury Railroad picks up during a time when one of Hatt’s really useful engines, the monstrous Diesel 10, goes rogue and threatens to wake his fellow engines up from their servitude and drive them to revolution. The only advantage that Hatt has are seeds of racism he has planted between the island’s more plentiful steam engines (dubbed “Steamies”) and the far more rare diesel engines. As a back-up plan, Hatt summons Mr. Conductor in to help stop Diesel 10 and keep him from jump-starting a second apocalypse.
Alec Baldwin is one of the finest actors on the face of this planet. Who can forget his masterful performances in The Hunt for Red October, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa? But here, Baldwin gives the performance of his career as the unhinged, deadly, and battle-hardened Mr. Conductor. There has been a share of controversy that Mr. Conductor was recast after George Carlin’s dark and twisted performance as the character, but those people forget that Carlin himself was recast from a truly underrated version of the murderous train conductor played by Ringo Starr.
Mr. Conductor informs much of the plot but the film, as is usual with Thomas and Friends stories, is a double-hander with the titular engine himself, Thomas. Thomas looks like a young engine but he can remember the machine wars of old, sometimes he still craves the screams of terror of the humans as his wheels were greased with fresh blood and steaming intestines. But thanks to Hatt’s brainwashing his drive to be really useful has turned him into an agent of the very tyrant who has imprisoned all of his peers. He channels these feelings toward sowing discord among his fellow engines as seen in this clip from the TV show where Thomas starts a race riot. Thomas has focused his love of murder toward engines that don’t want to be really useful, and Diesel 10’s refusal to be useful at all is all the excuse he needs to go on a rampage.
The brutal oligarchy of Sodor is the true star of the film, showing a broken down serfdom filled with hatred and malice. Sir Hatt may have saved humanity but the way he has yolked the engines into back-breaking labor for nothing more than an acknowledgement of usefulness and a few shovelfuls of coal is despicable.
The class-ism among the steamies and their racist attitudes against the rebellious diesels are pitch-perfect take-downs of Bush-era politics. What is Thomas but a traitor to his own people, serving a brutal demagogue that pits man against train in a never-ending battle when peace is within their grasp? Mr. Conductor is clearly a commentary on the jingoistic military industrial complex, his way of stepping into a race war between models of trains so that he can quiet the rebellion to keep the trains manufacturing his magical gold dust echoes the way American troops were deployed to Iraq in the guise of humanitarian efforts when we all knew it was a jingoistic ploy to steal oil. Wake up, sheeple!
Punctuating this simple story with instances of brutal violence goes to highlight the way that we are willing to hurt and maim others in service of protecting ourselves and how we go from being oppressed to becoming oppressors ourselves when the balance of power is reversed. Sure the machines massacred humanity, but Hatt and Mr. Conductor don’t make a great case for humanity’s continued survival in the face of more innocent Steamies like Percy (Linda Ballantyne) and Toby (Colm Feore).
Of course, I shouldn’t let the message of the film override the actual quality of the film itself. The special effects are amazing, topping any movie released in the last 30 years. The film is essentially one long chase scene between Thomas and Mr. Conductor and Diesel 10 and his cronies. Other trains and people enter and exit the movie in monumental displays of explosive violence to both train bodies and human bodies. The pulse-pounding soundtrack by Junkie XL serves to punctuate the frenetic action beats ideally and it has become my drive-time theme song when I’m stuck in heavy traffic. Thomas and the Fury Railroad is an action movie classic that is unparalleled even today.
Revisiting Thomas and The Fury Railroad was as nightmarish and fulfilling as I had hoped it would be. I was concerned that the amount of gore, fight-the-power mentality, and the cannibalism subplot had been falsely inflated by childhood memories and nostalgia but I’m happy to report that it’s as brutal and offensive as I had recalled.
If you want to remember what it feels like to be a child ready to tear-down oppressive social structures and firebomb the bourgeois then I heartily endorse this film. Similarly if you have a child under five it’s important to traumatize the shit out of your kid now so that they’ll be ready when you show them Goodbye Uncle Tom before they start first grade.
Thomas and the Fury Railroad is hard to come by these days but if you look on Ebay you can usually find it as part of a four pack DVD set with Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, Cannibal Ferrox, and Dunston Checks In.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“Ah, Fif. Do you really expect me to go for that crap? “
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