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#187. Steam Power!

The industrial revolution of the 1800’s changed much of our world into what it is today. Before this era, we used manual power to get us places. Walking, riding animals, and sailing on ships were the fastest ways to get around before one major invention evolved our world into one of automation and power. That invention is steam power. Water is a powerful force that had not been utilized to its fullest potential until steam power came along. In solid form, water can sink unsinkable ships. In liquid form, it can cut canyons out of solid rock or be harnessed behind a dam. The vapor form of water is used to provide mechanical energy to machines like a boat or train. This steam power propelled our civilization forward, not only to invent more, but to explore more as well. This week’s two films feature steam powered plots.

                                                     Back to the Future: Part IIIBack to the Future: Part III
Year: 1990
Rating: PG
Length: 118 minutes / 1.96 hours

Trains have often been a favorite subject of the early era of film. In fact, one of the earliest films in recorded history was from 1896, depicting a group of people waiting for a train to arrive. Followed shortly afterward was The Great Train Robbery in 1903, one of the first films to include a plot, as well as many filming techniques we still see today. Needless to say, there have been many films afterward that use the steam locomotive as part of its plot. The raw power and high speed these trains can exhibit are great for action sequences, even in modern films like The Polar Express (2004) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012). Although it’s no wonder that The Polar Express was directed by Robert Zemeckis, considering his use of steam locomotives in a film he made 14 years earlier: Back to the Future Part III.

In the previous two installments of the Back to the Future trilogy, the DeLorean time machine was fueled with nuclear power and a lightning bolt, but in Part III, the challenge is trying to get the car up to 88 miles per hour. The time traveling equipment works, but the car does not, and both Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) are trapped in 1885 with very few options at their disposal. The one conveyance that could even possibly get up to the required speed is a steam train. Unfortunately, trains do not normally travel that fast, so not only do they have to steal a train, they have to modify it to exceed its speed limits. Of course, this is only the start of their problems, as they need to avoid confrontation from Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the man who would supposedly kill Doc Brown in less than a week.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Year: 1928
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 70 minutes / 1.16 hours

As mentioned before, trains were very popular subjects in early films. One of the best of these silent-era films was The General (1926). While Buster Keaton played the main character in this film, the steam locomotive itself was also somewhat of a character, creating many comedic situations as Keaton’s character tries to re-capture it from the Union. Aside from riding the rails, another form of steam powered travel is by boat. These steamboats were mainly used on rivers, where the need to travel against the current was often needed. Wind power would not be sufficient to overcome these forces. As such, steamboats have become a part of American history, especially when associated with the mighty rivers that wind their way across its land. Two years after Buster Keaton appeared in The General, he took to the steam powered plot again, this time with a paddle steamer instead of a steam locomotive. This film later inspired Mickey Mouse’s debut role in Steamboat Willie.

“Steamboat Bill” Canfield Sr. (Ernest Torrence) and John James King (Tom McGuire) are rivals in the steamboat business. Bill hopes that his son can help him improve his dilapidated boat to surpass the luxury steamer of his rival. Unfortunately, “Steamboat Bill” Jr. (Buster Keaton) returns from college and is an immediate disappointment to his father, who was hoping for a strong, burly man like himself. To top things off, Junior is in love with King’s daughter, Kitty (Marion Byron), spurring both fathers to enact a “Romeo and Juliet”-like plan. When Canfield’s boat is declared unsafe, he attacks King and is arrested. Junior attempts to get his father out of jail, with little success. The time for Junior to shine comes when a storm hits the town, destroying most of it as he takes to the river in his father’s ship, rescuing Kitty, his father, and her father before setting out to find a minister to marry him to Kitty on the spot.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 steam powered plots


One response to “#187. Steam Power!

  1. Pingback: End of Act Four | Cinema Connections

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