This road movie/historical reenactment of the history of the American railroad made in 1974 confirms what anyone who paid any attention to Johnny Cash's music at all already knows – Johnny loved him some trains. In countless songs Johnny talked about how trains were the backbone of the country, how they brought love and loss with them when they pulled into the station, how they were able to take you away from it all to a new place. The locomotive played an important part in Johnny Cash's music and Johnny Cash in turn played an equally important part in American music.
The film starts off with some on screen narration from Johnny as he explains his love of trains and how it stems back to his childhood. From here he wanders 'through time' in the sense that he guides us through various re-enactments of important historical events in the history of the railroad. We're there with him as he watches the momentous occasion that was the driving in of the last spike to connect the east and the west in Utah, as well as earlier moments in history like when the 'Tom Thumb' engine raced a horse (and subsequently lost when a belt slipped off of the engine). When the civil war erupts, we're witnesses to a railroad chase, and we're there when the trains carried soldiers off to serve in the first world war.
All throughout these little vignettes, Cash wanders in and out of the picture and treats us to a few appropriate musical numbers. His deep and strong voice compliments the strength of the steam engines perfectly and his knowledge and enthusiasm of and for the topic at hand make for an interesting combination.
Ridin' The Rails was made in 1974, and as the film ends it brings up us to the (at the time, at least) present day where the trains no longer hold the allure that the once did what with the onset of the transnational highways and affordable air travel. We witness Cash as he strolls through rundown stations that were once proud buildings, and as he meanders through a train's passenger that is no more than twenty five percent full that decades before would have been packed to the gills. It's a somber ending, and even one that's a little bit emotional for those of us who get nostalgic easily.
While on the surface this may sound like a really hokey project, Cash is sincere enough here (as he always was) that he honestly makes it work. The Reenactments are handled well with everyone of the actors in proper period dress, and the steam engines all look majestic and powerful and at times even a little awe inspiring – like the man in black himself. The cinematography has got plenty of great shots of the trains in action, barreling down the tracks built with so much blood, sweat, and tears and it's also juxtaposed later on with lingering shots of empty buildings and footage of a phenomena that has had its day and run its course.
Even if you're not particularly interested in the history of the railroad this fifty one minute blast from the past is still completely worthwhile based only on the power and sincerity of Johnny's music. Scattered throughout the film are a bunch of Cash's 'train songs,' some more popular than others, all of which suit the bill perfectly. Performed either in part or in their complete form as the movie plays back are: Ridin' The Rails, Lorena, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, John Henry (complete with video reenactment!), Shave And A Hot Bath, Casey Jones, a riveting version of The Wreck Of The Old 97, Brother Can You Spare A Dime, Crystal Chandeliers And Burgundy, Doesn't Anybody Know My Name, City Of New Orleans, and a somber take on The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore.
This made for TV movie is presented in its original fullframe aspect ratio and the framing looks very nice on this transfer. Unfortunately there is quite a bit of print damage present throughout the film, and some heavy grain in a few scenes as well. The image overall is quite soft and not in the best of shape. That being said, everything is at least watchable. The colors come through reasonably well and there aren't any problems with mpeg compression and only a mild hint of edge enhancement makes its way through into the final product.
There are two mixes on this DVD – a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track and a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix. The 2.0 track is the way to go as the 5.1 track tends to bury Johnny's narration in sound effects sometimes. The music sounds good on both mixes, though the levels are really high on the 2.0 mix. Neither one of these mixes is really all that good, but the 5.1 mix is artificial sounding and not really all that well done. There are no alternate language dubs nor are there any subtitles or closed captioning options available on this DVD.
As far as supplements go, Rhino has dug up four outtakes from the film that combined run for roughly fifteen minutes in length. Most of this material is presented without sound though the first clip does have some muddy sounding dialogue as it features an alternate version of Cash watching and narrating the action in Utah.
Johnny Cash fans and railroad fans alike will be able to look past the mediocre presentation that this film has received on DVD. The material is strong enough to stand on its own, the music is timeless and poignant, and combined they suit each other very well. Johnny Cash - Ridin' The Rails: The Great American Train Story comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.