Rocky Mountain Express

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Rocky Mountain Express Movie Poster Image
Beautiful visuals, rewarding tale of transcontinental train.
  • NR
  • 2011
  • 45 minutes

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Positive Messages

Film's core message is that great accomplishment often comes at great cost. Values promoted: bravery, ingenuity, sacrifice in the name of progress, and a willingness to commit to long-term goals. Perseverance and teamwork are major themes.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lauds the ingenuity of the designers, engineers, and builders of the Canadian transcontinental railroad, their foresight, dedication, and spirit. Describes the courageous sacrifices and work ethic of thousands of men who filled the crews, most of whom were immigrants from Asia. Does not, however, deal with the fact that they were perhaps exploited in their quest for a better life.


Newsreel footage recounts landslides, avalanches, and accidents that were fatal to the railroad crews and villages during the creation of the railroad.


Canadian Pacific Railway is the focus of this film.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Rocky Mountain Express is a 45-minute documentary made for IMAX screens, now available on DVD. Following the railroad tracks as they were laid for the Canadian Pacific Railway's transcontinental trains in the late 1900s and early 20th century, the film is beautifully photographed and offers a concise, easy-to-follow narration. It's a solid introduction to the trains themselves and to the challenges and successes of carving out early transportation routes across North America. The only disturbing sequences may be the visual and audio descriptions of some of the tragic accidents (avalanches, mudslides, derailments, severe weather) that befell those stalwarts who were attempting to do what was almost impossible. Though the outcome of the endeavor is never in question, the film is able to generate enough suspense to keep audiences engaged. Best for kids who are fans of intriguing factual documentaries and for anyone who loves trains.

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What's the story?

ROCKY MOUNTAIN EXPRESS tells the story of the remarkable, almost impossible, feats of engineering and construction it took to create the first Canadian transcontinental railroad. As a refurbished steam train, Number 2816 retraces the original route carved out of mountains, rocks, and riversides from west to east. Narrator Michael Hanrahan details the genius and courage of William Cornelius Van Horne, who supervised the entire endeavor and is now a revered hero in Canada. An American by birth, Van Horne oversaw the project from its earliest stages of design through to the train's earliest arrival at the seaport of Montreal. The viewers meet an assortment of other influential people (including A.B. Rogers, another American who significantly affected the design, making some grievous mistakes in judgment along the way) and learn of the overwhelming challenges, accidents, and natural disasters tens of thousands of men faced as they worked. It's clear that many men died as the dangers intensified. The Selkirk Mountains, the Rockies, Lake Louise, and Banff National Park are the visual headliners, but the engineers and crews get lots of attention, too. As director Stephen Low has stated, "Every single shot is an illustration of the courage of these (workers), in my view."

Is it any good?

This film, with its stunning visuals, pitch-perfect music, and a riveting story, may change forever the way audiences look out train windows as they cross a great expanse. Rocky Mountain Express makes it impossible to take for granted the immeasurable commitment and courage it took to construct difficult railway routes, specifically the Canadian Pacific Transcontinental Railway. Director Stephen Low and his crew took five years of summers to meticulously photograph and tell the story, and it shows. Michel Busson's original music earns kudos, as does the integration of such songs as "500 Miles" by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The movie is a wonderful introduction to the world of trains and to the pioneers who made possible commerce, travel, and settlement across the continent. Kids who are accustomed to fast-paced action and conflict may need encouragement, but it's well worth it. This is a solid film, recommended for middle graders and up, particularly those who love trains.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether or not Rocky Mountain Express is successful in its two-fold purpose: informing and entertaining. How do you think it will affect your feelings the next time you travel by train? In what ways does this film reinforce the fact that gaining in-depth information about a subject or issue is an enriching experience? 

  • On several occasions the movie reports that the crews working on the trains were largely immigrants from Asia. What do you think motivated them to come to North America (in this case, Canada) to work? Can you find similarities to current 21st-century immigration issues? 

  • Did the music in this film heighten your feelings about what you were seeing? If you can listen to it again, think how each selection helped the filmmakers get an emotional response from the viewer. 

  • How does Rocky Mountain Express promote perseverance and teamwork? Why are these important character strengths?

Movie details

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