Nineteenth-century writer Victor Hugo probably never envisioned the longevity his work would have when he penned his classic novel Les Miserables. His story of Frenchman Jean Valjean, accused of stealing a loaf of bread, then escaping, and Inspector Javert, the police chief who doggedly pursues his quarry, became the blueprint, one century later, for a popular television show that ran from 1963 to 1967. Ran, literally, since that is exactly what the hero, a latter-day Valjean, did each week for four years. Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen), wrongly accused of murdering his wife, hit the high (and sometimes low) road, trying to keep one step ahead of Lieutenant Gerard (Barry Morse) while trying to find the one-armed man actually guilty of the crime. It was one of those rare TV series that actually had a happy ending, when the one-armed man was caught in the highly watched final episode.
Cut to 1993, thirty years after the TV show's premiere. Warner Bros. decided to build this concept into a feature-length motion picture. Surprisingly, it worked quite well, even though the original episodes were still rerunning occasionally, and everyone knew the presumed climax of the film. There were many reasons for the movie's success at the box office, including brilliant casting, a fine director, and one very memorable special effects sequence.
The movie starred Harrison Ford
(in the David Janssen role), one of the most bankable action stars of the century. Of the top films of all time, Ford had appeared in seven, including three Star Wars pictures and three Indiana Jones movies. Co-starring as the cat to Ford's mouse was Tommy Lee Jones - a sort of "Every-heavy" for the '90s - as the by-the-book Gerard. And Andrew Davis, a former cinematographer who had directed the previous year's Steven Seagal hit, Under Siege (1992), which also co-starred Tommy Lee Jones, brought new energy to the time-honored plot.
Credit Davis' cinematic skills with the film's set-piece, the great train wreck. This most-talked-about scene in the whole movie was as much an asset as its stars or director. In this sequence, the bus on which prisoner Kimble (Ford) is traveling accidentally ends up on train tracks, in the path of an oncoming locomotive. He makes good his escape, but not before being chased by the out-of-control train after it strikes the bus. The scene was filmed using a full-scale bus and train, rather than the usual miniatures. To capture the action on film, 13 remote-controlled, specially shielded cameras actually developed for use in combat were strategically placed in front of the runaway locomotive. It was a one-take-or-nothing shot, filmed on location in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Harrison Ford, suffering from an injured kneee and only days away from surgery, insisted on doing his own stunts for the scene, which involved him actually escaping through the bus window and running like hell. After the shot was completed, the cameras had to be dug out of the dirt, their motors still eerily whirring away. And the demolished bus was sold to the railway company for one dollar, to become a tourist attraction.