Avalanche Express (1979)

PG | 88 mins | Adventure | 19 October 1979

Directors:

Mark Robson, Alan Gibbs

Producer:

Mark Robson

Cinematographer:

Jack Cardiff

Editor:

Garth Craven

Production Designer:

Fred Tuch

Production Company:

Lorimar Productions
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HISTORY

The following written statement appears in the end credits, “The Producers Wish To Express Their Appreciation To Monte Hellman And Gene Corman For Their Post Production Services.”
       German actor Günter Meisner is credited as “Günter Meissner” in the screen credits.
       A 22 Mar 1978 Var article stated that filming began on 9 Mar 1978 in Munich, West Germany. Locations in the area included the train station at Starnberger Bahnhof and soundstage work at Bavaria Studios, which provided a base of operations for the production, as mentioned in an 11 Jan 1978 Var item. In a 17 Dec 1977 LAT interview, director Mark Robson estimated that as much as forty percent of the schedule would involve filming on a moving train. Several sources, such as 9 Jul 1978 LAT noted that Robson gained valuable experience choreographing train sequences across rough terrain while making the film Von Ryan’s Express (1965, see entry). A 24 Mar 1978 HR article reported that cold and rainy weather further complicated the outdoor shooting on the locomotives, which was already a logistical challenge.
       After ten weeks of filming in West Germany, the production relocated to Italy, as noted in a 16 May 1978 HR brief. According to production notes at AMPAS library, the sequence depicting the rendezvous with the defecting K.G.B. agent was shot in Milan, Italy, inside the renowned La Scala opera house (“Teatro alla Scala”) and outside in the Piazza della Scala. The snowy backdrop was added later as a special effect. The scenes of the “Geiger Group” attacking the train on ... More Less

The following written statement appears in the end credits, “The Producers Wish To Express Their Appreciation To Monte Hellman And Gene Corman For Their Post Production Services.”
       German actor Günter Meisner is credited as “Günter Meissner” in the screen credits.
       A 22 Mar 1978 Var article stated that filming began on 9 Mar 1978 in Munich, West Germany. Locations in the area included the train station at Starnberger Bahnhof and soundstage work at Bavaria Studios, which provided a base of operations for the production, as mentioned in an 11 Jan 1978 Var item. In a 17 Dec 1977 LAT interview, director Mark Robson estimated that as much as forty percent of the schedule would involve filming on a moving train. Several sources, such as 9 Jul 1978 LAT noted that Robson gained valuable experience choreographing train sequences across rough terrain while making the film Von Ryan’s Express (1965, see entry). A 24 Mar 1978 HR article reported that cold and rainy weather further complicated the outdoor shooting on the locomotives, which was already a logistical challenge.
       After ten weeks of filming in West Germany, the production relocated to Italy, as noted in a 16 May 1978 HR brief. According to production notes at AMPAS library, the sequence depicting the rendezvous with the defecting K.G.B. agent was shot in Milan, Italy, inside the renowned La Scala opera house (“Teatro alla Scala”) and outside in the Piazza della Scala. The snowy backdrop was added later as a special effect. The scenes of the “Geiger Group” attacking the train on a river bridge were shot in Casalmaggiore, Italy on 31 May 1978. Additional locations included the coastal waters of Venice, Italy, according to the 9 Jul 1978 LAT article. A 5 Jun 1978 HR article noted that the production was scheduled to wrap 13 Jun 1978.
       A 24 Mar 1978 HR article reported the budget as $12 million, estimating that it was the most expensive film project shooting in Europe.
       Avalanche Express was the final film for director Mark Robson and actor Robert Shaw. According to the 22 Jun 1978 LAT obituary, Robson died of heart failure on 21 Jun 1978 in London, England. Shaw suffered a fatal heart attack close to his home in western Ireland a couple of months later on 28 Aug 1978.
       In the 9 Jul 1978 LAT article, actor Lee Marvin recalled that Robson was frail while filming the boat sequences in Venice, and after principal photography he was flown by private jet to a London hospital. A 10 Aug 1978 DV article announced that filmmaker Monte Hellman had been appointed by Lorimar Productions to oversee post-production. Although this source, among others, suggested that shooting was completed by the time Robson died, a 27 Nov 1978 DV interview with Gene Corman, who was also supervising post-production, revealed that approximately fifteen percent of the script still needed to be shot and Hellman would direct. During this completion phase, second unit director Alan Gibbs was in charge of the unfinished action sequences, Lee Marvin was brought back for two additional days of shooting and the explosion scene with the freighter was filmed at Paradise Cove in Malibu, CA.
       According to a news item in the 21 Feb 1979 LAT, Robson completed sixty-five days of shooting, but there were still ten days left on the schedule, in addition to editing, post-production and scoring. Special effects expert John Dykstra, who was responsible for using models to create the avalanche and finish the train sequences, claimed that in the wake of Robson’s death, the project relied heavily on special effects, particularly in terms of the train shots, for which Robson had planned to primarily utilize real train cars.
       Following Shaw’s death, British actor Robert Rietty was selected to re-record the late actor’s dialogue. As directed by Hellman, Rietty ended up dubbing the entire performance. According to a 9 Feb 1979 HR item, the film’s music included an Irish song written by Shaw.
       Hellman continued to supervise editing for eight months, as reported by a 6 Jul 1979 HR news item.
       At some point during the project, Garth Craven replaced Dorothy Spencer as editor. According to the 9 Jul 1978 LAT, article, Spencer was a longtime associate of Robson and left retirement to work on the production. The review in the 19 Oct 1979 LAT noted that Spencer and the distinguished director of photography Jack Cardiff were not listed in the screen credits, but revealed that screenwriter Abraham Polonsky kept his name in the credits as a sign of respect for his friend Robson.
       At the end of principal photography, the film did not have a domestic distribution deal. By early Aug 1978, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. contracted with Lorimar Productions, Inc. to handle the release in the United States and Canada, adding to their earlier agreement to distribute the film in select overseas territories, as announced in a 1 Aug 1978 press release. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
14 Feb 1978.
---
Daily Variety
10 Aug 1978.
---
Daily Variety
27 Nov 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
6 Mar 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
24 Mar 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
16 May 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
5 Jun 1978
p. 1, 4.
Hollywood Reporter
18 Oct 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
9 Feb 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
6 Jul 1979.
---
Hollywood Reporter
19 Oct 1979
p. 4.
Los Angeles Times
17 Dec 1977.
---
Los Angeles Times
22 Jun 1978
Obituary, p. 30.
Los Angeles Times
9 Jul 1978
Section O, p. 55.
Los Angeles Times
28 Aug 1978
Section B, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
29 Aug 1978
p. 5.
Los Angeles Times
21 Feb 1979
Section F, p. 8, 10.
Los Angeles Times
19 Oct 1979
Section G, p. 27.
New York Times
19 Oct 1979
p. 8.
Variety
11 Jan 1978.
---
Variety
22 Mar 1978.
---
Variety
16 Aug 1978.
---
Variety
25 Jul 1979
p. 17.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Lorimar Presents
A Mark Robson Film
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
Asst dir
2d asst dir
Dir, Boat battle seq
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Asst cam op
Asst cam op
Clapper/Loader
Gaffer
Still photog
Dir of photog, Boat battle seq
Cam op
1st asst cam
Gaffer
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir, For miniatures
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
SET DECORATORS
Prop master
Prop buyer
Set dec
Set dec
Prop master, Boat battle seq
COSTUMES
Cost des
Ward mistress
Ward man
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
Mus ed
Mus coord
SOUND
Sd eff
Sd mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
VISUAL EFFECTS
Supv of spec eff
Supv of spec eff
Spec eff
Asst-spec eff
Asst-spec eff
Spec eff, Boat battle seq
Spec photog and miniature eff
Asst-spec eff
Eff prod mgr
Spec eff gaffer
Chief model maker
Model const crew
Model const crew
Model const crew
Model const crew
Model const crew
Cine tech
Title des
MAKEUP
Makeup
PRODUCTION MISC
Bavaria prod exec
Prod supv
Prod supv
Scr supv
Scr supv
Scr supv
Prod secy
Prod secy
Prod accountant
Prod controller
Casting
Prod consultant
Prod consultant
Prod coord
Marine seq and facilities by
STAND INS
Stunt coord, Boat battle seq
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Avalanche Express by Colin Forbes (London, 1977).
AUTHOR
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Release Date:
19 October 1979
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 19 October 1979
Production Date:
9 March--13 June 1978
Copyright Claimant:
Lorimar Productions, Inc.
Copyright Date:
10 November 1979
Copyright Number:
PA49897
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Color by DE LUXE®
Lenses
Filmed with PANAVISION®
Duration(in mins):
88
MPAA Rating:
PG
Countries:
Ireland, United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
25544
SYNOPSIS

At a gathering of high-ranking Soviet Union officials in Moscow, General Marenkov, the head of the government security agency K.G.B, reveals that there has been a breach of Project Winter Harvest, a plan to establish a Soviet network of biological warfare devices throughout Europe. After the meeting, Marenkov requests that the Project’s Director, Colonel Nikolai Bunin, travel to Zurich, Switzerland, to assist in trapping the suspected culprit, a spy known by the code name Angelo. At a train station in Switzerland, a team of American intelligence agents, led by Colonel Harry Wargrave and his associates, Elsa Lang, Leroy and Neckerman, retrieves the latest cassette tape sent by their Soviet informant Angelo. The tape is discreetly transferred among Wargrave’s team until it reaches the hands of Haller, the superior officer, who is waiting on a private jet. After decoding the recording, Haller, Harry and Elsa listen as Angelo announces that this tape will be his final one and requests that the Americans meet him next Friday in Milan, Italy, during the noon tour at the La Scala opera house. Angelo explains that the position of the militarist hardliners is becoming more powerful in the Soviet Union, and subsequently Project Winter Harvest has been reactivated under the leadership of Bunin. With his cover threatened, he plans to defect immediately. Three days later during the opera house tour, Harry and Leroy wait for the rendezvous with Angelo whom they have never met. Suddenly, from behind the curtain of a private box, Marenkov reveals himself to be the informer, Angelo. While escorting Marenkov to a safe house in Milan, the Americans subdue and ... +


At a gathering of high-ranking Soviet Union officials in Moscow, General Marenkov, the head of the government security agency K.G.B, reveals that there has been a breach of Project Winter Harvest, a plan to establish a Soviet network of biological warfare devices throughout Europe. After the meeting, Marenkov requests that the Project’s Director, Colonel Nikolai Bunin, travel to Zurich, Switzerland, to assist in trapping the suspected culprit, a spy known by the code name Angelo. At a train station in Switzerland, a team of American intelligence agents, led by Colonel Harry Wargrave and his associates, Elsa Lang, Leroy and Neckerman, retrieves the latest cassette tape sent by their Soviet informant Angelo. The tape is discreetly transferred among Wargrave’s team until it reaches the hands of Haller, the superior officer, who is waiting on a private jet. After decoding the recording, Haller, Harry and Elsa listen as Angelo announces that this tape will be his final one and requests that the Americans meet him next Friday in Milan, Italy, during the noon tour at the La Scala opera house. Angelo explains that the position of the militarist hardliners is becoming more powerful in the Soviet Union, and subsequently Project Winter Harvest has been reactivated under the leadership of Bunin. With his cover threatened, he plans to defect immediately. Three days later during the opera house tour, Harry and Leroy wait for the rendezvous with Angelo whom they have never met. Suddenly, from behind the curtain of a private box, Marenkov reveals himself to be the informer, Angelo. While escorting Marenkov to a safe house in Milan, the Americans subdue and foil enemy agents who try and stop them. Because Marenkov is the third most powerful official in the Soviet Union, Haller suggests they need to bury him in a missile site to protect him. On the contrary, Marenkov wants to give the Soviets and Bunin a chance to come after him, which will expose the Soviet network of elite undercover agents and provide the Americans with a chance to defeat Bunin and Winter Harvest. Meanwhile at a covert location in Zurich, Bunin receives a telegram from Moscow reporting that the attempt to trap Angelo in Milan failed; therefore, Bunin must assume control of the European clandestine network consisting of Soviet agents planted under the deepest cover. Bunin updates Rudi Muehler, who has nurtured this network for years and is reluctant to hand it over, that Marenkov is the spy Angelo. Since Marenkov possesses the most classified information, his defection is not a routine intelligence operation but a political crisis. In order to kill Marenkov, Bunin must have access to Muehler’s elite agents and issues orders for them to be war-ready. Back at the Milan safe house, Harry proposes that they accompany Marenkov on the Atlantic Express train from Italy to Holland. Despite the risks, Harry persuades Haller that the scheme could flush out Soviet agents who have been in reserve for over twenty years, as long as they can keep Marenkov safe as bait. Through a series of decoys, the American agents sneak Marenkov on the train at the Milan station and keep him under close guard; however, Soviet agent Olga soon delivers intelligence to Bunin about the plan. Bunin orders Muehler to organize an attack, and confidently tells Olga that he already has two undercover agents positioned in separate cars of the Express. After crossing the Swiss border, Harry and his team encounter a unit of Soviet agents who have seized a signal tower along the route, but they defeat the Soviets in an exchange of gunfire that knocks out most of the compartment windows. As the train nears a Swiss mountain pass, an area helicopter communicates with the Express about possible inclement weather. On the Wasserhorn summit, the pilots notice skiers, but they are actually Soviet agents who set off explosive charges, creating an avalanche. The pilots warn Harry that the only option is to take shelter in the upcoming tunnel, but the train operator cannot increase speed and make the tunnel in time unless three wagons are dropped. Meanwhile, the avalanche crushes a nearby village. Using explosives, Harry successfully separates the last three cars before they are buried in the avalanche’s path. The rest of the Express enters the safety of the tunnel. Disguised as Professor Heinz Golchak, Bunin checks into a Swiss hotel and meets with Geiger, the leader of a German terrorist cell. In exchange for providing Geiger’s associates in hiding with an escape route via a Soviet freighter, Bunin wants the terrorist group to destroy the Atlantic Express, wearing their customary black uniforms and masks. That evening, after passing through tight security at the Zurich train station, Bunin boards the Atlantic Express in disguise, along with Geiger and Geiger’s female associate, Helga Mann. In the morning, the Atlantic Express arrives in Maastricht, Holland, and Dutch intelligence officer Scholten goes on board to assist the Americans for the remaining journey. Scholten informs Harry that a Soviet freighter, The Maxim Gorky, is suspiciously lingering in the waters off the coast of Rotterdam, Holland. Meanwhile, Bunin notifies Geiger that one of his men planted weapons in the bathroom ceiling, located behind the engine room. Geiger collects the stash and distributes grenades to Bunin and Helga. As the train is nearing a river bridge, Helga opens the operator compartment and threatens to trigger the grenades if the train does not slow down. As the locomotive comes to a stop, the Geiger Group waiting in the adjacent meadow attacks with machine guns. Grabbing Helga, Leroy leaps overboard into the water, setting off her grenade away from the train. Bunin throws a grenade towards Marenkov’s compartment, but the Soviet defector and Elsa escape the blast and jump off the train. Harry shoots Geiger dead and Scholten’s men kill the remaining terrorists, but Bunin gets away on a motorboat standing by to take him to the freighter. Harry explains to Scholten the importance of intercepting The Maxim Gorky since it will not only provide refuge for Bunin, but also for valuable Soviet undercover agents. To deceive Bunin, Harry, Marenkov, Elsa and Scholten disguise themselves in the uniforms of the Geiger Group, and proceed to the freighter’s location in a torpedo boat. As they approach, Bunin is surprised that these terrorists survived the train assault, but instead of picking them up, he orders the Soviet officers on the freighter to shoot. To counter the attack, Harry and his group fire torpedos, setting off a series of explosions that destroy everyone on the ship including Bunin. Later, on a plane to the United States, Haller informs Marenkov that Bunin’s death and the exposure of the Winter Harvest agenda has weakened the militant hawks in the Soviet government. Content, Marenkov hums a song on his way to a new life in America. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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