Most of the posts on this site have been aimed at fans of silent film or curious dabblers. This post is different. It’s aimed squarely at a very strange subset of non-fans.
I thought this was a fluke at first but I soon realized that it was a trend. Basically, when a silent film devotee ventures out with the fan flag flying, there will always be someone who says this:
“Aren’t those the movies with women tied to the railroad tracks?”
And when we gently correct them, they argue. No, no, no, there must have been SOME movies that featured the trope or it wouldn’t be so famous.
This is where we tend to get very annoyed and for good reason.
Pardon me, your presumptuousness is showing.
I love silent films but I recognize that not everyone has the same taste. The majority of movie fans do not care for the silents. That’s fine. What’s not fine is when someone who knows nothing about silent film lectures a silent fan on silent film.
Look, I don’t care for anime. At all. I don’t watch it and probably never will. You know what I also don’t do? I don’t tell anime fans what anime is like. I don’t presume to lecture them and try to prove they’re wrong. See how that works?
So, forgive me if I get just a little surly about this. Seeing a few silents back in college does not make you an expert. Catching reruns of Dudley Do-Right? Doubly so.
As a mark of my disdain, I call these people railroad truthers.
In my experience with silent film, I have only run into the cliche treated seriously three times. Twice in serials and once in a poverty row film. And one of the serials had a man tied to the tracks and rescued by the heroine.
(I do not count the Mack Sennett spoofs of Victorian melodramas. These were very broad comedies and they were making fun of past pop culture, not then-current movie trends.)
The silent era lasted for almost forty years. Three films in forty years. That’s not a trend, darlings. I have seen hundreds of silent films from every era and genre imaginable and have never once stumbled onto this supposedly common trope.
And remember what the truthers claim: This cliche was common and iconic. A symbol of the silent era. I say this because they often try to move the goalposts, claiming that one serial scene proves them right. Nope. They chose to die on the “Common and Iconic” hill and that’s where they must remain. No changing the terms of their stand mid-debate.
Oh no! They have stills! Whatever shall I do?
So then out come the pictures… Which prove nothing.
See, I could post a picture of Despicable Me 2 and claim that it proves that all 2010s films featured nacho chip hats. (If only!) I’m sure you understand the dangers of relying on stills as evidence for your claims.
Why is this so important to you again?
So you may be wondering about the origins of the cliche. Well, I made a handy little video on just that subject:
But back to the debate!
Once proved wrong, the weirdest thing happens. The railroad truthers don’t give up. It’s surreal. They keep digging and trying to prove that they are right but their proof gets weaker and weaker. The usual script:
Silent Fan: … So that’s why this is a myth.
Truther: What about Perils of Pauline?
Silent Fan: Um, that’s the 1947 Betty Hutton remake. The original had no such scene.
Truther: But you admit it was in Perils of Pauline?
Silent Fan: Yeah, the sound remake made three decades later. It’s not a silent–
Truther: I win! I win! Silent movies were full of women being tied to the tracks!
All this makes me wonder why it is so very important for these people (who, I might add, have seen very few silent films, if any) to prove that this trope was common. The truthers move goalposts and desperately cling to any scrap of a rumor that allows them to believe they were right. Why are they so heavily invested in the face of overwhelming evidence? It seems like madness.
I am not in their heads (thank goodness!) but I think that a lot of it has to do with how they view the history of motion pictures. “Sure, modern films may only have a female protagonist 12% of the time but at least we aren’t tying them to the train tracks, amirightguys?” When someone’s sense of superiority is shown to be without foundation, it is disconcerting.
Of course, I would have more sympathy for them if they actually went out and saw a silent movie or two before opening their big yaps.
And so, I now must issue my challenge again. No one has ever achieved victory but we must keep trying.
I challenge you to name ONE silent feature film that contains a scene of a damsel tied to the train tracks in the accepted manner. (Mustachioed villain, preferably with top hat, actually tying or chaining the young lady to the track for the express purpose of killing her.) This film must:
1. Treat the scene as a serious matter, no joshing.
2. Be released by a major silent studio. (Universal, Paramount, MGM, Fox, United Artists, Warner Brothers, and their various components and parent companies.) In short, no home movies and no poverty row quickies. These have to be movies that wide audiences would have enjoyed.
3. Again, just containing train peril is not enough. Train peril was incredibly common in the silent era because trains were THE form of transportation. No, the scene must contain the classic elements of Victorian melodrama.
When I issue this challenge, I invariably get people complaining that my conditions for success are too narrow. Ha! The railroad truthers have been busily stating that the tied-to-the-tracks trope was both common and iconic. Surely my modest limits should be no hindrance for a plot device that was so very common.
And if someone does find one… Congratulations! Now go find another. See, the truthers have built a rather high hurdle for themselves. One film ain’t gonna do it. Not for a scene that was used and reused and was common and iconic. Nope. We need more. Many, many more. Hop to it.
(Forgive me a smirk.)
Or they could take that time and watch real silent movies, the ones that audiences enjoyed from 1895 to the dawn of sound.