Paramount Pictures/Nat Holt Productions
It doesn’t get any better than narrow gauge steam in the mountains for the serious railfan. This movie is loaded with colorful railroad action culminating in a spectacular head-on collision of two trains.
Filmed mainly on the Durango and Silverton D&RGW narrow gauge line, this little-known Technicolor gem showcases three-foot gauge steam engines trundling through the eye-popping scenery of the Colorado Rockies.
D&RG #268, a C-16 class 2-8-0, leads a mixed train past a small shelter. This beautiful location is along the Animas River in Colorado on the line to Silverton.
The picture begins with a wonderful look at 1950’s era operations on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. F units galore. The California Zephyr in its heyday. Royal Gorge. Big Ten curve.
Let’s take a look at some of these “modern day” scenes:
D&RGW 5621 EMD F7A and D&RGW 5511 EMD FTA on freight trains.
D&RGW 6001 Alco PA-1 descends the “Big 10 curve” eastbound towards Denver.
D&RGW 5534 EMD F3A on a passenger train and D&RGW 5524 EMD F3A leads the California Zephyr up the Front Range out of Denver.
D&RGW 5481 EMD FTA in the Royal Gorge; California Zephyrs pass under cloudy skies.
Our story begins as two rival railroad track gangs (D&RGW and CC&SJ “Canyon City and San Juan”) are battling one another for possession of one route through the Colorado mountains.
The D&RGW (good guys) are led by Surveyor Jim Vesser (Edmond O’Brien) and General Palmer (Dean Jagger) whilst the CC&SJ (bad guys) are helmed by McCabe (Sterling Hayden) and his eeee-vill henchman, Johnny Buff (Lyle Bettger).
D&RGW #268 C-16 class 2-8-0 is still around and on display at Gunnison, Colorado.
The engineer of D&RG #268 “joins the birds” as his train nears a rockslide (said rockslide was triggered by a well-thrown dynamite stick by the CC&SJ miscreants); General Palmer comes up from his private car as the DRGW crew starts clearing the slide.
Engineer Moynihan (Paul Fix — Star Trek connection!) shoots the breeze with Jane Dwyer (Zasu Pitts) from the cab of D&RGW 268; Linda Prescott (Kasey Rogers) tips off leering henchman Johnny Buff and Sterling Hayden of the D&RGW’s plans.
As secretary to General Palmer, Linda Prescott had all sorts of insider information that she foolishly passed on to the CC&SJ. I include this picture purely for Johnny Buff’s toothsome smirk at Prescott.
Building the Denver and Rio Grande through the mountains.
Sterling Hayden and the boys try everything. They rob the payroll. They get a court injunction to stop D&RGW construction. Nothing works for long. Finally they steal a train (apparently you can just wave your arms in a “washout” signal and the train will stop). Hayden and Johnny Buff load their henchman onboard and they set off to stop General Palmer’s train headed to Denver.
“That’ll do, D&RG #319”; Nice shot of “the bad guys train” passing a water tower.
D&RG #319 stops to pick up more henchman; Sterling Hayden takes a belt of the demon whiskey while Johnny Buff eggs on the rabble. Check that funky green caboose!
D&RG #319 rolls up to the unsuspecting telegrapher at “Swallows” (looks like Silverton); With his hat at a rakish angle (must be the whiskey), Sterling Hayden looks on as his minions take over the telegraph station (note the battery acid containers? to power the telegraph).
General Palmer rallies his troops to head out and take back the railroad; Ed O’Brien and the boys (with D&RG #268 as a respectable background) sneak up on the bad guys.
Sterling Hayden bails off the 319 engine; the 268 engine does the same and now both trains are headed for a cornfield meet.
OK, this is what you’ve been waiting for. Filmed live (no miniatures and no second takes), the director used two, old, soon-to-be-retired locomotives; Note the pyrotechnics behind the trains went off a split second BEFORE the actual crash.
Kaboom! The trains collide in a spectacular display of smoke and flame.
Somehow, someway, Ed O’Brien hooks up with the “treacherous tomato” Prescott at the end of the picture. Our final D&RGW shot is the California Zephyr heading off into the distance.
Some very useful and interesting websites I found that helped with researching this movie:
The Utah Rails website has a wonderful description of the early F unit paint schemes on the Rio Grande:
Lots of interesting details about the filming locations in this movie.
And, of course, here’s what IMDb has to say about Denver & Rio Grande:
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