Land grabs, murders, hijacked trains and gold fever… They sound like standard western fare but this movie was made in France. Anarchic director Jean Durand takes a break from comedy to create this bloody tribute to the wild west—with a strong French accent.
Ride ‘em, Monsieur Cowboy!
We tend to think of the western motion picture as an entirely American invention, the exclusive property of the United States until the 1960s or so. Actually the Wild West fired the imaginations of composers, musicians, actors and directors all over the world. During the early days of the movies, France and Italy both tried their hand at making oaters. The Italians will probably come as no surprise but what about the French?
Director Jean Durand is best known today as the author of wacky comedies in pre-war France, particularly the Onésime series starring Ernest Bourbon. His films were full of stunts, animals and surreal humor. This would not seem ideal for a director of westerns, especially ones that did not have the benefit of American scenery. However, Durand had one trick up his sleeve.
The surreal comedy that Durand specialized in often displayed a streak of darkness. For example, Onésime vs. Onésime concerns the title character’s problems with his badly-behaved clone. Tired of the inconvenience caused by having a double, he corners, attacks and dismembers his doppelganger. I told you. Dark stuff.
That darkness would serve Durand well when he trekked to the French marshlands to make his westerns. You see, two years before William S. Hart started his campaign for darker westerns in the United States, Durand was creating his own potent blend of blood, guts and madness in the American west. The Railway of Death was one of many westerns he created for pre-WWI French audiences.
Joe (Joe Hamman) and Burke (Max Dhartigny) are a pair of western pals who stumble across a dying prospector in the desert. After they help him to his cabin, he tells them that he will reward their kindness with a secret. He has a gold claim many miles away and as he knows he is dying, he will tell them the location and let them get rich.
Sure enough, the old prospector dies but Joe and Burke are left with a quandary. They are pals and all but it seems a shame to split that fortune… Joe holds the map but refuses to share. Burke decides this is reason enough to break the partnership and he sneaks away in the Frenchest looking contraption I have ever seen. (Is “Frenchest” a word? It ought to be.)
Joe follows Burke to the train but a rapid shootout forces him to retreat. Joe manages to leap onto the top of the train from a convenient arch. He tosses one conductor onto the tracks and shoots the other one in the head. Then he uncouples the engine and speeds away, leaving Burke and the other passengers in the dust.
Not to be outdone, Burke rents a car (the second Frenchest thing I have ever seen), drives ahead and uses spare railroad ties to derail Joe’s engine. With Joe crushed and gravely injured in the derailment, Burke is free to claim that gold.
But Joe doesn’t give up and he doesn’t mess around. Yes, things are going to escalate. Seeing that we have gone from an argument about a map to cold-blooded murder and train derailment, you may very well ask how this is possible. I mean, we’re pretty escalated as it is. Well, my lambs, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
This little western blew me away and I am shocked that it isn’t more famous than it is. (Seriously, who knew about this and didn’t tell me? I’m very angry with you.) I was riveted from beginning to end.
The short moves along at a furious pace, not pausing for a second. Granted, it’s only about fifteen minutes long but it also has a clear narrative and doesn’t suffer from the choppiness that was still sometimes present in short films of the period. The whole thing is like a Coyote/Roadrunner cartoon, except with real bullets.
The film is beautiful to look at and makes good use of silhouettes (films of the ‘teens loved their silhouettes!). The shootout on the train’s caboose is particularly dynamic and exciting.
The Railway of Death is also interesting in contrast to American films of the period in that it has no hero. At first, the audience switches loyalties between Burke and Joe. However, when Joe starts shooting perfectly innocent railroad employees in the head, it becomes clear that there are no good guys in this picture and justice will not be served. It’s a welcome surprise.
The French shooting locations are not entirely convincing as American but that is part of the charm. I’m a big believer in turnabout being fair play. Plenty of American productions were set in France and I’m sure they don’t get everything exactly right. It’s fun to have the shoe on the other foot and see my culture through the eyes of a few talented Frenchmen. In any case, the deadly game of one-upmanship is so entertaining that there wasn’t much time to worry about the decidedly French seasoning.
In addition to the energetic direction and quirky location, the film is helped along by the grim performances of the lead actors. Little information about Max Dhartigny is available but his co-star was quite a colorful figure.
Joe Hamman was a pioneer of the French western film. One of the very first people to be bitten by the movie bug (he had attended one of the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 showings of their newly-perfected film projector), Hamman was equally enraptured with the American west when he visited during a business trip. He learned rope tricks and the sort of fierce riding and shooting that was expected of a movie cowboy.
Hamman’s skill as a stuntman is quite impressive. I mean, this isn’t rear-projection. It’s the real thing.
These bold exploits earned Hamman a following in France and the United States. In 1914, The Moving Picture World magazine referred to Hamman as a redoubtable character “whose dare-devil feats before the camera are well known to American picture fans.”
(In addition to risking his life on celluloid, Hamman was a talented illustrator. His subjects often included, you guessed it, the American west.)
Between the talented leads and the vigorous direction, The Railway of Death is a real rip-snorter of a western. Its quality and entertainment value make it an entertaining (if dark) motion picture over a century after it was made.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The Railway of Death was released on DVD as part of the Gaumont Treasures Vol. 2 box set from Kino Lorber. The set lives up to its promise and contains many treasures. It’s definitely worth adding to your collection.
Very cool. I had no idea any Westerns were being in Europe back then.
Yeah, between France, Italy and Scandinavia, they pretty much had every genre sewn up.
And I had no idea Italians made Westerns in the Teens… Well, I had no idea Italians made Westerns at all before Sergio Leone. I’m not a big fan of the genre – but I’m curious.
Yes, I love a good European western and I was pretty happy to learn it as well. Puccini wrote an opera called La fanciulla del West based on the Belasco play The Girl of the Golden West in 1910. I’m not sure if that started the trend in Italy but Sergio Leone’s very own mom and dad made La vampira indiana (The Indian Vampire Woman, I think?) in 1913. It was apparently a vampire-western but I wonder if they meant vampire in the monster sense or the seductress sense or both. I’m not sure of its survival status but what an important historical artifact! I would love to see it. There were a few other Italian offerings and some German ones as well. If The Railway of Death is any indication of the European western’s quality at this time, I think all of them would be worth tracking down.
Goodness – yes: The Indian Vampire Woman, indeed. 😀 I don’t know whether it was “real” vampires, but it may have been. Another movie was made in 1913, called “La Torre dei Vampiri” (The Tower of Vampires), so the idea was there at the time…
Puccini’s La Fanciulla was commissioned for the Met, and wasn’t very popular in Italy for a long time. This was in part for musical reasons, but I’m not sure it could have fired up a fad for things western… Still, the notion is interesting – and I’ll try to find out.
Yes, I am quite curious about it all. There is very little information in English and I have not found a reference for anything pre-1913 but it is quite possible there is more. It seems to be an ignored aspect of film history (at least in English) and it’s so often a matter of the right person rolling up their sleeves and diving in. I am very eager to hear about anything you uncover.
I am leaning toward literal vampire as well since the vamp fad in the US was two years away. I really hope the film survived.
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