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Kansas Pacific (1953)

by on 2012/06/27

“We’ve handled these diploma boys before, you know. He’ll learn soon enough to stay out of our way.”

* * *

Sometimes you experience an actor as a character so compelling that the image of the character is scorched on your retina for all time.

Sterling Hayden as Capt. McCluskey in The Godfather was exactly that kind of experience.

Gruff Capt. McCluskey was pure hulking, corrupt, opportunistic menace. First, there was the visceral experience of watching him break Michael Corleone’s jaw. Then there was the disarming way he tucked into an Italian meal with a white napkin tied around his throat. And then there was the gurgling, gasping sound as he takes a bullet up past the tonsils and into the brain stem.

It really doesn’t help that I’ve seen The Godfather an obsessive-compulsive number of times.

Capt. McCluskey is right there, etched deeply onto my consciousness for all time.

So when I saw all six feet five inches of Mr. Hayden as army engineer Capt. John Nelson in Kansas Pacific, there was Capt. McCluskey looming over the screen, obscuring this Civil War piece about trains, guns and blowing stuff up.

I do like trains, guns and blowing stuff up so there was a lot to recommend this film to me. I also like workplace fables, and this definitely had some “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” wisdom going on.

The story is simple enough. Crusty old railway man Cal Bruce (Barton MacLane) and crustier old Smokestake (Harry Shannon) are being dogged at every turn by Rebel sympathizers bent on stopping railway development in Kansas.  The Rebels sabotage tracks, shoot at railway employees and generally make productive work plum impossible.

Then the Yankees decide to put a man on the inside, an engineer with railway smarts. The two old timers are offended by the appointment of this young turk with his “slide rule.” Fortunately this army engineer is no poindexter with a pocket protector. He’s a blonde-haired, suntanned hulk of a man who wins hearts and minds of everyone with his two-ton fists, dead-shot and math skills.

Yes, math skills. Capt. Nelson is a mathlete. And mathletes are cool and sexy.

In fact, I think civil engineering departments should use this film as a recruitment tool.

I can imagine the recruitment promos now:

  • This engineer is admired by men and loved by women. Romance!
  • See this engineer tackle tough track grades in mountainous terrain. Blammo! Pow!
  • Watch as he does rapid calculations of raw materials required to accelerate track production in his head. In his head! Kaboom! Shazam!
  • Experience how he wins over veteran employees and work teams with expert change management skills. Bang! Kazam!

I don’t usually love films about the American Civil War, nor am I on the edge of my seat when talk of railway spikes and ties come up, but Sterling Hayden, the big brute, made me quite interested indeed.

Now if only the looming spectre of Capt. McCluskey, with his mouth full of veal and er, bullet, could have simply gotten out of the way.

* * *

73 minutes


  1. cineroulade permalink

    Best Civil War movie ever IMHO — Buster Keaton’s “The General,” also railroad-themed!

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  1. A Goth’s Month in Review: June 2012 « Geek vs Goth

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