By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Throughout the years, IMAX filmmaker Stephen Low has made many a documentary about some of the world’s amazing vehicles. From planes and trains to automobiles, he has finally covered them all. His most recent work, Rocky Mountain Express, is making a return to Victoria, B.C’s National Geographic IMAX theatre August 1st, and it will certainly be a crowd pleaser.
This movie looks at the Empress (CPR 2816), the little train that could. It carried more than just supplies and people cross-country. It also symbolized hope, and it really carried the dreams of many to unite a nation. Since BC was the last to join the Confederation, without the initial train line to connect the two sides of the country together, this nation might have taken on a different shape.
“It was the railroaders who built Canada,” said Low.
And it was the blood, sweat and tears of the people—the Chinese, Japanese and Europeans—who built the passage to connect the west coast to the east. With this movie, the political agendas are lightly addressed. This movie is more like a tribute to everyone, including several railroading pioneers like William Cornelius Van Horne who made the train line happen.
For Low, making this movie was a definite passion project that saw its seeds when he was young. His father took him to the roundhouse where the steam engines lay, and he let him play at the tracks. “I was enchanted by all that power,” revealed Low, “He put me up in the cab and it was all scary at first.”
But more happened during the years. As Low grew up, he worked at the railway and, later on, at the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) as a train brakeman and switcher. His passionate interest for this particular mode of vehicular transportation evolved. His family travelled by train in the 50′s and 60′s, and they loved it.
When reflecting on the past accomplishments of this locomotive, the most interesting facet he found was with the engineering process of constructing these railways through difficult terrain than the economic boom these lines meant to the country. This film certainly looks at the remarkable feats done over the 100 years to make crossing the Selkirks and Rockies less treacherous.
“The CPR built the railway when the steam locomotives were very primitive,” revealed Low, “The physics of the railways were spectacular. A single locomotive of the 1880s with a wood fired engine could pull 50 truckloads with one engine—that’s 500 horsepower! Now that’s efficient technology.”
By the time Low turned to making films, he saw a story about how the west coast part of the tracks helped develop the nation. He really wanted to focus in on Roger’s Pass, which is still potentially hazardous. The same can be said for many a railway system, but there is a human story to the BC line. When Low was asked about how this railway compares to others across the world, like the Orient Express, which consisted of smaller networks of tracks, there is none.
“With a small country investing everything in the building of this railway, CPR managed to build the greatest railway on earth.” said Low, “Now, the Trans-Siberian was a different story; it was longer but more modest in the history of the railways.”
But the enjoyment of what this mode of transportation means to different people will vary. Country to country, there is meaning behind what being at the tracks mean. Some nations are more dependent on it than others and it can be seen in the entertainment industry, on television or on film, as the place to fall in love, see a loved one depart or “leave me a mule to ride,” as one popular Blues tune goes. But the emotions evoked are varied. This film does a great job at varying its soundtrack.
“For me, it’s the nostalgia. To me there’s nothing as beautiful and romantic as the steam engine going across the prairies or the mountains, across the muskegs, or through the Columbia River valley,” says Low, “There is something fundamental about the experience of being near a train. People would hear that whistle and they run down the streets. It draws them in from everywhere. I think it’s in your genes. You remember. It’s evocative.”
Low wanted to make this short 45-minute documentary for the enthusiasts who share that memory. But he also wanted to show to the public how he could translate his feelings to film.
“Most people don’t understand us; they don’t understand the kid that is enchanted by the train. This movie shows what people like us are all about. It’s not a nerdy thing. I think trains are heroic. They are powerful, beautiful, sexy machines.”