a.k.a. RED ZONE CUBA
Hollywood Star Pictures [ 1961 ] 85′
country: United States
director: COLEMAN FRANCIS
cast: COLEMAN FRANCIS, ANTHONY CARDOZA,
cast: HAROLD SAUNDERS, JOHN CARRADINE
“Griffin . . . ran all the way to hell with a penny and a broken cigarette . . .”
Coleman Francis never directed a happy film – I suspect that this has a lot to do with the fact that the director, who spent his most formative years in the midst of the Great Depression and is purported to have been an alcoholic, was never quite happy himself. All three of his bizarre films focus on the very worst aspects of human nature – greed, corruption, and the desire to harm others. NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNDO FINE [better known as RED ZONE CUBA] is no exception. Produced in 1961 and released in 1966, the film is a catalog of man’s inhumanity towards man.
The thin yet convoluted plot [a trademark of all three of the films Francis directed] follows Landis [producer Cardoza] and Cook, two down and out ex cons just trying to make right by themselves and the law in the desert southwest. Enter Griffin [Francis himself], a career criminal on the run from the law. Motivated by greed alone, Francis convinces the other two to sign up with the army, currently offering $1000 for troops to mount an invasion of Cuba [given that the film is set in 1961, this is obviously a stab at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April of that year]. The plan is to take the money and run, but things go bad and the poorly trained troops are sent off to Cuba just the same.
Just as in real life, the invasion fails; Griffin and his cohorts are captured and thrown into a makeshift cell with a few others. After witnessing the execution of many of the others, including their commanding officer, the three manage to escape their prison and leave Cuba by plane. Once back in the states they make a bee-line for a unexploited mine, which they learned about from one of their co-captors in Cuba, thieving and murdering all along the way. Soon the authorities catch up with them, taking Landis and Cook into custody and shooting Griffin to death from a helicopter.
Like THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS before it, NIGHT TRAIN is structurally unconventional, featuring a motley and [seemingly] meaningless series of events. Just like BEAST, the film opens with a superfluous introductory vignette – in this case a reporter questions train conductor John Carradine about a gang of three desperadoes. Neither the reporter or Carradine appear at any other point within the film, the rest of which takes place entirely in the past. From there the plot bounces back and forth from narrative detour to narrative detour – the invasion and escape from Cuba, the murder of a shop keeper and rape of his daughter, the purchasing of not one but two cars, a brief excursion by train [the only actual train to be found in NIGHT TRAIN], and some compulsory light aircraft travel.
As with all of Francis’ productions, the randomness of the plot serves no clear narrative purpose and is, instead, focused on supporting the picture on a thematic level. Here, as in BEAST, the most clearly defined theme is that of dehumanization – only this time it is spurned on by one man’s insatiable greed as opposed to the flash of an atomic bomb.
The Francis-played Griffin is the catalyst for the dehumanization this go around, destroying in some way nearly everyone he comes into contact with through the course of the picture. When we are first introduced to Landis and Cook we are shown two downtrodden but likable men just trying to make right by themselves and the law in the desert southwest. A few hours with Griffin has them headed towards self destruction – under his influence they volunteer for the doomed raid on Cuba and, upon escaping, embark on a murderous quest for vaguely defined and potentially non-existent riches. We feel for the poor pair when we see them threatened with arrest by a patrolman early on in the film – by the grim conclusion it is obvious that they’ve become deserving of it.
Case in point of the destructive influence of Griffin is this scene from late in the film – Griffin has decided that a car has to be purchased in order to complete their journey. He demands that Landis sacrifice a personal possession [a ring given to him by his father], a demand with which Landis rightfully refuses to comply – Griffin beats Landis senselessly, taking the ring by force. The behavior of Griffin in this instance is in keeping with the violent tendencies he has displayed throughout the film. The changed man in this example is Cook, who stands by as his former friend is beaten, amused and disturbingly grinning at what he sees.
Griffin himself is an inhuman and unsympathetic monster from the outset and an obvious creative descendant of Tor Johnson’s Beast from the earlier film. He is motivated entirely by the need to possess, to consume, and to destroy. The entire picture revolves around his doomed quest to attain undeserved wealth [ex. possession], none of which he receives – along the way he burns through whatever he does manage to gain for himself in order to further his ultimate goal [ex. consumption and possession]. In a particularly disturbing display he raids the roadside diner of an old man, throwing the owner down a well [ex. destruction] and raping his blind daughter [ex. possession, consumption, and destruction] before breaking into the empty cash register. Early on he even strangles Cook to within an inch of death, all because the poor man has dared to lust over an image of a woman he saw in a newspaper article [the implication in the scene is that it is one of Griffin's former mistresses - ex. possession and destruction].
A forth and baser drive – the need to survive – also appears in Griffin at three points during the film. The first is during his opening evasion of the law, the second in his working to escape the Cuban prison camp, and the third is in his running from the mob of law enforcement during the conclusion.
Griffin, destructive as he may be, is not the only catalyst for dehumanization to be found in NIGHT TRAIN – the other is the phantom of power, here represented in the authority figures depicted throughout the picture. The earliest example is the patrolman who harasses Landis and Cook in the beginning, threatening them with arrest even though they’re doing nothing but changing a flat tire. The local authorities are shown to be corrupt at the film’s conclusion as well, as they gather in a mob to hunt down Griffin and his cohorts both by land and air [echoing the conclusion of BEAST], killing Griffin like an animal from the safety of a helicopter. The stomping on of the little people by those in positions of power is a recurring theme throughout Francis’ works.
A strong secondary theme to be found throughout NIGHT TRAIN is that of greed and the corruption and destruction resulting from it. Examples of this theme as it relates to Griffin, Cook, and Landis can be found in the previous few paragraphs of this article. Two other obvious examples can be found in characters at the beginning and ending of the film. The first is the grammatically challenged Cherokee Joe, who makes a living taxiing various persons from his dusty airstrip to the Army base nearby. It is he who transports our three ‘desperadoes’ in exchange for their truck [which is almost certainly worth more than the services it is traded for]. The second is a junkyard manager, who accepts Landis’ stolen ring in exchange for an old junker. Both are prospectors looking to make a quick buck off of the needs of others; examples of the dishonest and self-serving side of capitalism. Indeed, taken into account with a number of the previous notes, the argument could be made that NIGHT TRAIN is anti-capitalist, though certainly not pro-communist [the depiction of the Cuban government and their barbaric treatment of their prisoners is enough to convince me that the film is not pro-communism].
The world depicted by Francis seems full to the brim with those who take advantage of others and the trail of ruined victims they leave in their wake. As such, it is all the stranger that Francis offers something of a ray of hope for better things in NIGHT TRAIN. Said ray of hope can be found in the relatively unimportant character of Chastain and, to a lesser extent, his wife. Chastain himself is a fellow soldier to Griffin, Landis, and Cook, but his motivation for joining the conflict is only to honor his grandparents [who's sugar plantation has been taken from them by the new Cuban regime] – something he feels he owes them since they paid his way through college. This is in direct opposition to the motivation of the other three for joining [the unfulfilled promise of a $1000 cash reward to those who sign on for the invasion]. Chastain is wounded in combat and offers up information about an untapped tungsten mine on his property in hopes that it will persuade Griffin and company to take him with them when they escape – instead they take his information and run, leaving him just another spent resource.
Chastain’s wife enters the scheme of things late – distraught by the news that her husband is, presumably, dead, she agrees to help Griffin, Landis, and Cook to prospect in the mine on their property as a way of seeing her husband’s wishes fulfilled. Believing the thieving murderers to be friends of her husband, she offers them money, shelter, and food – her reward is to be shot [though not fatally] by Griffin during the climax of the film. Her survival seems unlikely given the outcome of similar events from earlier in NIGHT TRAIN, though not nearly so unlikely as the survival of her husband, who is inexplicably reunited with her in the closing scene. The couple’s survival of events beyond their control serves to enforce a tertiary theme – that humanity is capable of surviving corrupting forces. Though less intelligibly conceived, the sequence from THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS in which the Radcliffe husband survives the aerial sniping of a local patrolman, as well as the survival of his two young sons [lost in the hunting grounds of the Beast], serves much the same purpose for that film.
On the whole, NIGHT TRAIN [as well as BEAST] can be taken as a testament of Francis’ lack of faith in the American Dream, which I suspect was another victim of the actor/director’s spending much of his youth in the midst of the Great Depression [not to mention his alcoholism and tough luck working within the studio system]. Griffin and his cohorts are chasing after a perversion of the American Dream, plundering the countryside in order to attain a level of lifestyle that they have no honest right to. In stark contrast are Chastain, his wife, the old diner owner, and his blind daughter, who are all trying their best to get along by following the rules. Their reward for honesty and hard work [ex. the diner owner spends the entirety of his earnings on medical operations in a desperate attempt to allow his daughter to see again] is to have their lives destroyed or nearly destroyed by the roving thugs.
In comparison to the earlier produced THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, this is a better constructed and more confident effort – evidence that actor and director Francis and novice producer, actor and editor Anthony Cardoza were becoming more comfortable within the medium of film. The biggest improvement is definitely in the way of the performances – unlike BEAST, NIGHT TRAIN actually has performances and narration is kept to the absolute minimum [the line of dialogue that opens this review is the only narration to be had]. The acting can be rough going from time to time but is generally no more embarrassing than that found in your average Roger Corman cheapie from the same period – producer Cardoza fairs the best out of the cast, performing the role of Landis quite admirably. The conspicuous addendum of John Carradine to the beginning of the picture in a feeble attempt at framing is certainly odd, but his brief performance is solid [in a grand marketing ploy, the actor is fourth billed in spite of only being on screen for a minute or so] – Carradine also provided the vocals for the song heard over the opening credits. NIGHT TRAIN still carries with it all of director Francis’ trademarks, from the drab, flat photography to the odd framing to the obsession with light aircraft and rampant non-sequiturs [the most memorable here being Griffin's line, "Bay of Pigs . . ."]. It may not be high art in terms of its aesthetic but it is still a rather satisfying step up from his previous effort.
NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNDO FINE was [in]famously roasted in the seventh season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 under its alternate title RED ZONE CUBA, a dubious honor that has led [very falsely, I might add] whole scads of viewers to the conclusion that it is totally unworthy of any sort of critical appraisal. The truncated version screened therein leaves the film a shadow of its former self and an easy target for those looking to poke dumb fun at the artificially butchered continuity or giggle at endless comparisons of director/star Francis to members of the Three Stooges. The other two directorial efforts from Francis have suffered the same fate, encouraging the absence of his unique cinema from critical discussion on all fronts. This reviewer thinks that’s a damned shame.