The music is high tempo, the damsel is in distress, and the mustachioed villain is mugging to the camera. Yup, she's been chained to a railroad track, and the 7:10 express is running right on time.
Used and overused in many silent films, to the point where no self-respecting person would play this trope straight now. But self respect is so overrated...
This familiar scenario first appeared in the 1867 short story "Captain Tom's Fright", although a more rudimentary form of it was seen on stage in 1863 in the play The Engineer. However, it really entered the meme pool as a result of its inclusion in the 1867 play Under the Gaslight◊, by Augustin Daly. (Interestingly, in Gaslight the victim is a male, not a fair maiden) By 1868, it reportedly could be found in five different London plays all running at the same time, and remained a theatre staple for decades. From there it was but a short leap to silent films when the latter appeared on the scene. The earliest known use of this trope in that medium was the 1913 Keystone Komedy film Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life. It's commonly associated with the 1914 film serial The Perils Of Pauline, but this is probably due to confusion (no one knows for sure, since neither the full serial nor the script have survived).
If a Dastardly Whiplash character appears, he'll probably use this trope without shame, befitting of a similarly "outdated" villain. Heck, he'll be proud to show off his knowledge of "the classics."
As bizarre (and horrible) as it may seem, this trope isTruth in Television. At least six people in the United States were killed between 1874 and 1910 as a result of being tied to railroad tracks.
Usually the trains used in this trope would be powered by old-time steam engines, but a few modern uses/parodies would use more modern diesel locomotives instead. It's also a hazard for characters in a Mouse World, who may have this happen to them with toy trains, let alone real ones.
For more information, see this page at The Straight Dope website.
See Chained to a Rock, which is much, much older, but operates on the same basic principle. Compare Railroad Tracks of Doom.
Played straight in the 202nd chapter of the manga JoJo's Bizarre Adventure when Joseph and Abdul are both magnetized to one of the rails (and each other) by their enemy. Of course, Abdul could have just melted away the rail with his power over fire, but since it would derail the oncoming train, they had to be a bit more clever in their escape.
In the fourth episode of the Gintama-anime, Shinpachi and Kagura (who is "introduced" in said episode) are pushed onto a train track while being stuck in a garbage can. They are saved by Gintoki... who just happened to be around because he managed to find that week's Shonen Jump at the station's newsstand.
Obscure Example and variation: The manga sequel to Bobobobobobobo, Shinsetsu Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, features a villian that captures both Beauty and Dengaku-man, and he chains them up to the end of a downward-spiraling train track; Bo-bobo and his group must defeat all of the enemies on each of the trains in order to stop them in time. Only Softon is able to fully stop one of the trains; at the last minute, Heppokomaru/Gasser is able to destroy all of them and save Beauty.
In the ManhwaLet Dai, Dai does this to Jaehee after he considers him to have spurned his love.
The ninja students do this to the teacher Hayato in the very first episode of Himawari!
In the Justice Society of America story in All Star Comics #40 (1948), a teenage gang ties one of their members to a stretch of disused railroad tracks as a prank (the idea being to scare him). However, an explosion forces the railroad to reroute a train onto the 'disused' tracks...
Detective Comics #532. The plot in one sentence: Joker ties Batman to a train and Vicki to the track; Batman breaks free and saves her.
A sci-fi variation (not to mention a rare heroic one) occurs in Spider-Man 2099 where Spider-Man is clearly outmatched by a cybernetic bounty hunter, and uses his wits to get the cyborg caught by his metal parts on the intense magnetic field of a maglev track and then hit by an oncoming vehicle.
Jill Tuck is tied to a tunnel in the trailer and teaser of Saw 3D.
Parodied in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, where one of the many tortures that is done to Gizmo has him tied to a miniature train track. A miniature train then painfully collides with him, but does no lasting damage.
Played straight, probably for the first time in years, by The Matrix. Rather than tying Neo down, immortal Agent Smith just puts him in a chokehold and makes him watch the oncoming subway (Smith, being an Agent, doesn't have to worry about dying himself). Unfortunately for Smith, his goading triggers Neo's Berserk Button, and Neo escapes.
One of the oldest parodies of this trope was in the 1917 short silent film, Teddy at the Throttle. Gloria Swanson is chained to a railway, and a dog and an effeminate boy save her. Part of the humor derives from the fact that Gloria Swanson's character was clearly badass, even breaking down a door earlier in the film. Her love interest is timid and emotional, and it seems that it would be more likely that she would be the one saving him. The train, after the conductors are alerted by the dog, Teddy, of the girl on the tracks, even stops a few seconds too late. The girl actually has to dig herself a hole with her feet so that she can safely hide in it as the train moves over her. A job well done, supposedly.
The trailer for the film Trainspotting consists of a postscript scene (not in either the book or the film itself) of Renton (Ewan McGregor) tied to a railway line, and telling the audience how the other characters caught him and did this to punish him for the final events in the film itself. Possibly done to relate the title to the film and avoid confusion.
A variant of this trope is done in 3 Ninjas: High Noon on Mega Mountain where the bad guys tie Rocky's girlfriend to the tracks of a roller coaster.
Sabotage is a rare male example: DEA commando Pyro wakes up to find his RV has been dragged into the path of an oncoming train.
Roald Dahl uses it — and not as parody — when two bullies tie a boy to the tracks in the short story "The Swan" (from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More). We witness each excruciating second as the boy realizes they aren't joking and don't plan to untie him, anticipates his death, stops to calculate the necessary clearance, realizes he could possibly make it if his head were a bit lower, burrows the back of his head into the gravel, and then keeps his body still and taut as the train rushes over him. (And the train tracks aren't the last torment the bullies inflict on him, either; they end up shooting him in the leg with a rifle.)
In the Agent Angel (formerly known as Angels Unlimited) series, Miss Bloom is tied to the train tracks whilst filming a movie—with her brother crouching just out of shot with knife, in case a train really does come.
Played completely straight in Tad Williams' River of Blue Fire series. However, since the villain in question is the bored, sociopathic god of a virtual world the women end up run over, multiple times.
Used in Anthony Horowitz's Diamond Brothers books. The protagonist notes that for all the narrow escapes he's had, he's never going to write a book about how to free yourself when you're very securely tied to a train track, because it's just not gonna happen. He's only saved by an outside party.
Parodied in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Sabrina even does the scream-and-struggle seizure, but quickly stops as she realizes that screaming is pretty pointless if you're in a silent movie.
Parodied in a The Muppet Show sketch where Miss Piggy was tied to a track by a Snidely Whiplash like character. Wayne appears as the hero, but forgets about saving Piggy when he recognizes the villain as a fellow boy scout from his youth. Instead, Wayne advises the villain on how to tie knots restraining her properly and leave as friends. Luckily, Piggy escapes by rising her to her feet and literally tearing off the section of track she is tied to.
Parodied in The Avengers episode "The Gravediggers", in which Mrs Peel is tied to the tracks of a miniature railway.
Used, inevitably in the old Adam West/Burt Ward Batman series. It is claimed that, in keeping with their different status (hero vs sidekick) Batman was chained to a larger gauge railway than Robin was.
Subverted in an episode of MacGyver: MacGyver and an old man he is protecting are knocked out and tied to a railroad track by the villain; however, the railroad track is just a film studio prop, and the purpose is to scare the old man (who suffers from a heart condition) into having a heart attack.
Parodied in a sketch on The Dave Allen Show: a villain ties the heroine to the railroad tracks and leaves her to be run over by "the Flying Scotsman". In this case, 'the Flying Scotsman' turns out to be a kilted Scotsman with wings strapped to his arms.
Played straight in the 50's The Adventures of Superman. Victim was Lois Lane, natch. For bonus points, they also had Perry White tied to a log in a sawmill.
This is done in a Thunderbirds episode titled 'The Perils of Penelope'. Penelope wasn't actually bound to any rails, but she was bound to a ladder that was stretched out right in the path of the approaching Anderbad Express Monotrain.
Played straight in the long-lost 1952 Bob Clampett-created childrens' puppet show Thunderbolt The Wondercolt (a heroic horse), which featured an episode where Thunderbolt's friends Speedy Turtle and Chipper Chipmunk are tied to the railroad tracks by the villain Willy the Wolf, as a train approaches. They try signaling with a mirror, which luckily grabs Thunderbolt's attention. The train is actually treated as a huge menace, complete with the locomotive designed to resemble a World War II fighter plane (complete with the shark-style markings). Thunderbolt arrives at the last minute, stops the train cold (presumably by derailing it), and frees his friends.
In the Even Stevens episode "Louis in the Middle", Tawny pretends to be tied to a minature railroad while Alan attempts to run her over with a train in an effort to shake Louis out of his 'hero syndrome' mindset.
In one episode of Brazilian show "TV Colosso", a producer working for the fictional network had been tied to railroad tracks. The reason her captors did it to her was to force the train out of the tracks.
Married... with Children had an episode where Al briefly hoped Peggy would be "accidentally" tied to railroad tracks but commented that she'd end up flipping the train.
Casseta And Planeta had a sketch where they were tied to railroad tracks but the train stopped because of a railroad workers' strike.
Done as a opening sketch on the Australian kids science show Scope on the episode devoted to trains.
Unusual example appeared in 21 Jump Street - Hanson was handcuffed to a railroad track by the episode's Manic Pixie Dream Girl so that he could feel the "rush" of impending death. She did rescue him in the nick of time, of course.
The theme re-appeared in television cop drama Longmire Season 1 Episode 8, in which a cult leader conspires to send all his 12 young female followers to 'rebirth' by means of running over their drugged bodies with a train passing nearby his compound. 11 of the cultists volunteer by consuming a draught of narcotic and laying down on the tracks, but one of them is unwilling, and is tied to the tracks with barbed wire. The plot is discovered by the titular hero when he realizes the import of a mural on the wall of the cult compound. The damsels are saved from the onrushing train at the last possible moment.
Played straight (but only the trope!) in an episode of the German series Bernd das Brot. Openly declared in the credits as a homage to the old silent movies.
Parodied in The Onion's faux historical retrospective Our Dumb Century, with an ad for a railway company claiming to feature "fewer mustache-twirling villains tying golden-haired maidens to our tracks" than any of its competitors, as such events are quite an inconvenience to passengers.
Parodied in the song "Along Came Jones", first a hit for The Coasters and later covered by Ray Stevens. The song tells of a man who is watching TV when he sees three different shows in which a Damsel in Distress is held by a villain, and rescued at the last second by a Marty Stu named Jones. In the third verse, the damsel is tied to a railroad track.
The Sue Fink song "Damsel In Distress" parodies this and the concept of the Damsel in Distress in general. (Video here.)
The music video for Don't Stop by Patrick and Eugene has one of the duo play a bad guy who ties a woman to the train tracks, and the other tries to stop him. It doesn't end well.
Taylor Swift winds up tied to the railroad tracks by a villain in the video for "Mean". She gets away in the end, though.
Chicago's 1974 TV special "Meanwhile Back At The Ranch" is filled with old silent movie gags. One has a gender flip of this, with guitarist Terry Kath being tied up on the tracks by the villain, Anne Murray.
Charles Addams, creator of The Addams Family, parodied this in one of his cartoons in The New Yorker. A pair of thugs are tying somebody to railroad tracks while a woman who lives alongside the tracks looks on and says "I don't mean to interrupt, but there hasn't been a train over that line in 18 years."
Addams also did one where a Snidely Whiplash-type villain is seen headed down into a subway station with a bound and gagged heroine slung over one shoulder.
A cartoon in a magazine showed several early 1900s suffragettes driving along and spotting a friend of theirs, an elegant lady who cheerfully waves her parasol at them ... as she stands over the Dastardly Whiplash type she's tied to the tracks. The driver comments that this is one of their "more militant sisters."
In the "Sweet Caroline" arc in Modesty Blaise, one of the attention getting murders committed by Sweet Caroline is to drug a famous actress and tie her to a railway track like a heroine from an old-time melodrama.
Played with in an old joke involving a guy discussing how he found a girl tied to a railroad track and, after untying her, had all sorts of sex with her. Upon being asked by the person he's talking with whether they had oral sex, the guy states, "Couldn't. Her head was missing."
There was an old rhyme about a man now please take note, there was a man who had a goat. The goat ate three red shirts off the clothesline, prompting the man to tie the goat to the railroad track. Just as the train was approaching, the goat threw up the shirts, thus flagging down the train.
Photography & Illustration
Colmar railway station in France has an enormous stained glass window displaying one of these scenes. It is not clear why any railway company would think this was a good idea.
The No Way Out poster for 2012 had Daniel Bryan be the victim of this at the hands of former love interest AJ. The coloring of the poster and the costumes of both played up the melodramatic stereotype of the act.
This trope makes an appearance in Runescape where the player has to rescue one of the goblins who is tied to a railway.
The player saved more than just the goblin; if Zanik were to have been run over, it would have started a war between the Dorgeshuun and the Dwarfs (who built the train) which was exactly what Sigmund (the villain) planned.
The quote above is from the 70's Bond-parody level in TimeSplitters: Future Perfect. Where your sidekick's partner/girlfriend had been captured and tied to the tracks. After beating the boss, they manage to stop the train...nowhere near close to hitting her.
To elaborate: To get the achievement ("Dastardly"), you tie up a female NPC and watch her get run over by a train. This actually caused a minor kerfluffle over the net because the video that first showed it just happened to use a nun as the victim, and many people assumed that was part of the achievement.
Played in Final Fantasy VIII with an optional GF the player can acquire. Literally flaming tracks appear after barriers appear on either side of the enemies and the background morphs into unintelligible space vortex-y swirly things. Then you see his light…um…light up and see him zooming down the tracks at a rate of knots, and seconds before contact is made it zooms in to give you a shot of his demon face before he slams through the enemies, and before long all returns to normal and the enemies receive damage and a huge number of additional status affects. You can see all of this here.
In The Haunted Carousel, the villain arranges for Nancy to get her foot trapped between the rails of a roller coaster's tracks, and she must free herself before being splattered by the oncoming train of cars.
A parody of this trope is part of an early scheme in Terror Island—Sid requests Liln put on a frilly dress and be tied to train tracks, demanding Stephen save him by grocery shopping. Liln doesn't do it though.
Played straight in Lackadaisy, where the three redneck farmer brothers try to dispatch Rocky by tying him up in his own coat and nailing his necktie to the railroad tracks.
Rocky: "I hope you boys are prepared to be disappointed, because being run down by something called the Sunshine Special is too ironic to be possible."
Especially egregious since one of them had a shotgun. Though they weren't too bright, it's still justified, as one of them explicitly stated they were interested in seeing what would happen when the train hit. Just shooting him wouldn't have been as much fun.
Parodied in numerous Looney Tunes cartoons, including Bob Clampett's The Big Snooze, in which Elmer Fudd (who's dressed as a woman) is tied to the tracks by Bugs Bunny and the "Super Chief" runs right over him — the "Super Chief" being a long line of little bunnies following Bugs, who's wearing a feathered headdress. Other cartoon-inspired versions include the train running over the bad guy who may or may not even be standing on the tracks, or derailing into a pile of twisted steel, leaving the tied-up person without a scratch.
One toon ended with Bugs tied to the tracks by Crusher (the wrestler antagonist) and is just about to be run over by the train...when the film is literally cut abruptly stopping the cartoon. One guess as to who did it.
This was also subverted in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, when the Evil ACME Chairman, among one of the many classic tricks for D.J.'s father Damian to meet his doom, ties Damian to the railroad tracks, where the streamlined ACME Train of Death is hurtling towards him. If that doesn't kill him, the surrounding dynamite would. (Wile E. Coyote is also driving the train.) However, Damian is saved in the nick of time, and the train eventually crashes (thanks to it running into some dynamite).
It also appeared in Batman: The Animated Series where a one-shot villain who specialized in nigh-unescapable death traps to extract information from his victims used a woman tied to the tracks as bait for Batman. The woman turns out to be a hologram. The villain laughs at Batman for thinking he would have really done it.
Parodied on The Simpsons in The Itchy and Scratchy Movie, in which Itchy does just this to Scratchy - however, Itchy discovers that the engineer won't let him in the engine of the train without proper training. So Itchy goes to college, passes his exams, gets his degree, finds a job as an engineer at a railway, and proudly rides the train right over Scratchy (who, being the poor luckless bastard that he is, had almost managed to free himself in the meantime before fate caught up with him).
In Cordell Barker's cartoon adaptation of The Cat Came Back (see trope), old Mr. Johnson drives a handcar over no fewer than seven (if not more) women and a cow, before derailing on a cockroach.
Done in the Fairly OddParents episode,"The Good Old Days", a parody of old-timey cartoons. An old-timey version of Vicky is the bad guy, and she has Timmy's Grandpappy tied up. She attempts to put him on the train tracks, but it is crowded with similar villains. She opts for a Conveyor Belt-O-Doom at the local sawmill.
There was also a scene in the series pilot from Oh Yeah! Cartoons!, in which Vicky was tied on railroad tracks, with Cosmo as the train, Wanda as the engineer, and Timmy as the old-timey villain (complete with black top hat and mustache!)
Timmy, as the Masked Magician, once saved Vicky from railroad tracks and asked her who tied her there in the first place. Since she failed to see the one(s) responsible, she instead listed the people she believed to hate her to that point. The list was so long Timmy wouldn't stay around to hear it all.
In George of the Jungle, Tom Slick once entered a train race where the villain had tied Marigold to make Tom stop.
Lampshaded in an episode of Darkwing Duck where the villainess does just this to Darkwing and Launchpad. DW lectures her for resorting to such and old cliche, but is forced to admit that while not terribly original, tying someone to a railroad track is indeed effective.
In the 1948 Tom and Jerry short "Kitty Foiled", Tom tied Jerry to a toy railroad track. The mouse got saved by the canary, who bombed the toy railway with a bowling ball, smashing straight through the floor and dispatching the onrushing train into the basement.
Parodied in a segment on MickeyMouseWorks, in which Peg Leg Pete kidnaps Minnie (apparently in a series of segments parodying the old "damsel in distress" cliches), and ties her to a set of railroad tracks. Unfortunately, Mickey's not that good at untying knots, so before long, both of them are tied to the track, just as railroad crossing signals begin flashing. Pete's driving the train, which consists of a large diesel locomotive and several passenger cars. But right before the train can run over them, Mickey manages to hit a switch conveniently located in front of them, and the train goes up this other track into a tunnel ("I KNEW I shouldn't have put in that second set of tracks!" Pete curses). Mickey and Minnie manage to get off the tracks, still tied up. The train then speeds by again, going the opposite direction, managing to cut the ropes and free our heroes.
In Popeye, this was Bluto's first very first method of capturing Olive. There he tied her up with the tracks. Olive Oyl would pull her arms out of the constricting tracks to wave and holler, then put them back into the tracks. How does Popeye save her? By punching the train into scrap with one blow!
In the second of the Roger Rabbit Shorts, made after the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Roger and Baby Herman end up on a roller coaster. Out of nowhere, about half way through the skit, Jessica Rabbit turns up tied to the roller coaster by Droopy wearing a top hat and big mustache. After passing this Roger and Herman even give an Aside Glance because of how random this is.
Played straight in the old X-Men cartoon with Jubilee tied up on the subway tracks. It was only a mental image of Jubilee implanted in Wolverine's mind so he'd get splatted trying to save her, though.
Played straight on at least two instances in the Mega Man cartoon. Since he was a robot, he was electrified to the rail rather than tied.
Happens to Scoutmaster Lumpus on Camp Lazlo after he is captured by the clowns of Slapstick Mountain.
Parodied in a Pinky and the Brain episode set during the silent film era. The Brain's latest scheme involves becoming a silent film star, and he and Pinky make a movie featuring this trope.
A Super Chicken episode had a melodrama villain actor believing he actually was a villain - naturally, he takes the damsel actress to all the usual spots - the railroad tracks, the sawmill, and the dynamite shack.
The above-quoted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode has Bebop and Rocksteady doing this to Splinter. Of course, Splinter is eventually saved and the train winds up destroyed (thanks to Rocksteady cutting the brakes.)
In the Eek! The Cat episode "Cape Fur", the Killer Rabbit sees JB playing with a toy train in his room, so he eventually ties him up to the railroad tracks and turns the train on. As the train is about to hit JB, he cries for help. The titular Eek hears JB's crying, so he goes up to his room and unties him, but unfortunately, Mom comes up and sees both of them, and after untying JB, Eek gets hit by the train, and then his family locks him in a cage for punishment.
This is how one Earthworm Jim episode opens; Jim and Peter Puppy are tied to a railroad, implied to be a consequence of switching bodies (But not heads) because Peter can't use Jim's super suit very well. Psycrow is meanwhile operating a express at them. Jim manages to get back inside the suit, free themselves, and bend the tracks so they're pointing up. The train is sent flying up, Psycrow falls out ("Maximum suckage.") and Jim and Peter walk off to have their bodies fixed. Then the train falls on Psycrow. Later on in the episode he still has that train on his back.
In the Secret Squirrel cartoon "Catty Corned" a particularly nasty dog does this to a scientist's cat whom he thought had swallowed some explosives, and the dog was trying to find ways to set off the explosives with Secret and Morocco thwarting his attempts.
Apparently SAS selection used to include a scenario where the 'captured' soldier was handcuffed to a railroad track blindfolded, whereupon the interrogators would pretend to panic, shouting "Where's the key?" then "Too late, run for it!" as a train was heard approaching (but was actually going past on a parallel line). Some calmly shifted their body so the train would cut their shackles, others panicked completely and ended up in a position where they would have lost their limbs.
Malcolm X's father was murdered this way, when he stood up to a gang of white supremacists. Even worse, the death was considered by the police to be a suicide.
The infamous case of the "Boys On The Tracks". In the early morning hours of August 23, 1987, Arkansas teenagers Don Henry and Kevin Ives were run over by a freight train. The initial autopsy report claimed that the boys had passed out on the tracks after smoking a large amount of marijuana. However, a second autopsy indicated that not only had the boys very little pot, but that one of them may have already been dead when the train hit him. The case remains unsolved and no specific suspect has ever been named, but it is believed that while out hunting, the boys stumbled upon a drug deal, were killed to ensure their silence about what they had seen, then placed on the tracks to cover up evidence of the murder. Some people say that Bill Clinton was somehow responsible, being the Governor of Arkansas at the time and whatnot...