Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, July 06, 2007

The performance that changed your life Blogathon: Jon Voight in RUNAWAY TRAIN

For my money no actor better embodies the ideal mix of sensitivity and toughness than Jon Voight. In films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY, COMING HOME, THE CHAMP, and DELIVERANCE he exudes a courage that is not the result of being thick-skinned and oblivious, but from love. You look at his little baby face and you can see a wealth of emotion that breaks the heart even as it wakes it to action. What about the way he suddenly becomes a scared, cornered little boy at the end of COWBOY, holding Ratzo’s body and looking around with this tough guy face, like a five year old trying to scare the bullies by looking extra mean? HEARTBREAKING!

Yet for my money, none of these can really match the reality-warping turn as Manny in the 1985 Golan-Globus hit, RUNAWAY TRAIN.

Like a cross between Hannibal Lechter and Rocky Balboa, Voight's Manny is a champ to the underdog in the gloomy Alaskan prison where he’s been kept chained up in solitary confinement for two years, due to his constant attempts to escape. As the film opens, we find the whole prison population riled and excited at the news that Manny will soon be returned from solitary to plan to escape amongst them once again. The tough warden knows he’ll have a riot on his hands if Manny's allowed to escape, even briefly, so he plans to have him shivved during the evening’s boxing match.

The film earned Voight an Oscar nomination, and became a favorite of many an artist like myself who endeavors to crack the code of "maleness" and what it means to find courage as a man, both in and out of the social order. According to IMDB, Marlon Brando was a fan of RUNAWAY TRAIN and mentions his admiration for and identification with Manny in his autobiography.

The grimy warmth of the prison (surrounded by inhospitable Alaskan snow white mountains) conjures the same sort of masculine womb of smelly camaraderie as one finds in Wolfgang Petersen's DAS BOOT (1981), creating a palpable existentialist atmosphere. Voight is its natural leader, and a terror to conventional authority, representing an uncompromising lust for life that transcends everything from sex to pleasure to any form of comfort. No prison can hold him, no threat can deter him, no amount of punishment can break him. After he kills the assassin at the boxing match he looks up at the warden and his goons on the balcony and throws a chair up at them: “Come on! Come on! I got nothin’ left to live for!” Manny shouts upwards as if attacking God, begging the warden and his men to fight him, or shoot him, anything but the endless drudgery of his current situation.

Voight’s so alive with animal ferocity in this scene that it leaks out onto the viewer, certainly it leaked out onto me. At the time I first saw this (a rental I watched in my sterile NJ suburban parent’s house shortly before slinking off to college) I too felt this seizure of hope and inspiration. This was what it meant to be a man! I needed the lesson, for I was about to be cut loose on my own for the first time. Voight's performance is a boilerplate lesson in alchemical transmutation of adolescent alienation and self-centered fear into life-affirming rage and courage. Watching Manny rant and rave, I know I was learning how one could conquer their fear of death, bullies, and job interviews.

Of course Manny does escape, with Eric Roberts by his side, who provides the human narrator/foil to Voight’s crazy juggernaut of a freedom lover. It's not until a third or so into the picture that they climb aboard the train to escape, and wind up hurtling through the empty white wilderness, on an unfinished track line, in a train where the driver is dead and there's no way to get to the engine to slow the speeding juggernaut down.

Throughout their odyssey, Manny tries to impart some life lessons to the delusional Buck (Roberts): When escaping through the sewer pipes, Buck blanches at the smell, but Manny merely says "That's the smell of freedom, brother."Once aboard the titular train, Manny urges Buck to wise up and get a job once he gets back to civilization. He tells Buck that if he can learn to just clean the floor really well, to scrub “that one spot” he’ll have made it. But even the awestruck Buck can tell, watching Manny's crazy eyes as he starts to envision this spot, that this is not so reliable a career counselor.

As a life coach though, Manny is peerless. That sort of roaring walrus energy is the eyes-wide open approach to life that all men should strive for. I once had a mystical vision of a giant bull walrus roaring through a whole in the arctic ice... this beast, all alone and in lifeless freezing waters, but with that roar, that blind raging shout of “I am,” the walrus becomes one with the cosmos (Perhaps the Beatles had this same 'vision'?) I knew I could stay happy and in the moment as long as I remembered the loud bellow of this walrus. I later realized that Manny is the human version of this walrus; hurtling towards death, frost on his big walrus mustache, Manny even manages a heroic gesture of selflessness before journeying into the final blast of white.

With his eyes wild with life his big cheeked mouth frozen into an eternal leer,, Voight’s performance is the sort of thing that can blast a stupefied suburban slacker right out of his chair, and have him moving fearlessly out to get a job, go to school, and or join a band in no time flat. After this movie I was ready to scrub and scrub that damned spot on whatever floor some lame boss assigned me, and not see it as some damned stupid job but as a chance to define myself through action, the real time equivalent of a walrus roar in the ice, or the frenzied performance of Jon Voight as he hurtles through the blinding white void.


  1. One of the most interesting selections in the blogothon, I must say.

  2. Anonymous09 July, 2007

    Very insightful. Great overlooked film. I put it in my queue for another look.


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