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Film / Last Clear Chance

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"Why don't they look, Ralph, tell me? Why don't they look?"
Railroad Employee

Last Clear Chance is a 1959 Glurge-fest brought to you by Union Pacific, that shows just how stupid people get around trains.

Idaho State Patrol Trooper Hal Jackson, concerned over automotive and train safety, visits with a local family (established as friends), whose youngest son has recently received his license. Through a series of scenarios detailing bad driving etiquette, unsafe driving — one story ends in the death of one of the kid's friends — and ignorance of safety around railroads, Jackson's goal is to impress upon the young lad the need to observe safety and driving laws all of the time.

But has his grim lesson sunk in, or will innocent people die this day at the hands of our mortal enemy, the train? (Answer: Yes.)

While maligned by some as too narmish – particularly for a reactionary scene near the end of the film, where one railroad worker asks why some drivers fail to heed basic safety rules – it was lauded by many others as a sobering effort to instill safe driving in young drivers. Today, it also stands out as a showcase of rural America in the late 1950s, before superhighways – although a few four-lane highways are shown – and urban sprawl and when farming was still a major part of the economy in rural areas; plus, some old-school railroad crossing technology, most notably the wig-wag (swinging pendulum) crossing signal, can be seen in use, as well as a vintage, early 1900s-style railroad crossbuck (diamond-shaped) sign … years before the crossings were upgraded with modern signals, bells, and gates … plus the long relegated-to-history caboose at the end of several trains. The movie itself was filmed in southwestern Idaho, with some footage also filmed in northern Colorado.


For the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, please go to the episode recap page.

Last Clear Chance contains examples of these tropes:

  • An Aesop: Observe all traffic laws all of the time, and be aware of the specific hazard that comes with railroad train crossings.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: The question Trooper Hal says many drivers ask if they are fortunate enough to survive a car-train collision: "Where did the train come from?" The answer, of course (as he says), is "the railroad tracks." The point being, of course, that a train can be expected at any crossing, at any time, that drivers must be aware at all times of that, and that one time of failing to heed warning signs and signals, or looking for a train is all it takes to get seriously injured or killed.
  • Based on a True Story: The story of a farm family that is ultimately shattered by tragedy is based on a real-life family's experiences, as can be seen in the book "The Field Guide to Sponsored Films."
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  • Bloodless Carnage: Betty's body is otherwise uninjured despite her having died in train collision. Although one interpretation could be that she did not immediately die and that death came later.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Alan tells Trooper Hal he just got his driver's license a few hours earlier, after which Hal reveals that he saw him driving in town just a few days earlier. Hal – who, it can be implied, didn't stop Alan because he thought he was licensed – doesn't scold too much however, and doesn't even give him a warning … he sees that Mr. and Mrs. Dixon's disappointment is enough. (Plus, Grandpa Dixon admits he allowed him to take the truck into town, even though he knew him to be unlicensed.)
  • Chase Scene: Trooper Hal describes a car chase, involving a 17-year-old boy – an acquaintance of young Alan – speeding in a hot rod. The crash ends tragically when the boy loses control of his car on a winding, gravel road and plummets down the side of a hill; the boy is killed instantly when the car lands on top of him.
  • Clueless Aesop: Althought the message of "pay attention while driving" is a good one that more people need to take to heart, it's made rather stupidly. The entire short is about how even minor distractions can be dangerous or even fatal. However, when the big accident does end up happening, it's because the driver was doing something so insanely stupid that even someone who'd never seen a car before could probably tell you it was a bad idea. Then again, real people do things just as dumb every day, so...
  • Could This Happen to You?: The film ends with the police officer reminding the viewers of what happened to Frank Jr.
  • Downer Ending: Frank and his fiance die in a train crash due to carelessness as his horrified brother is only able to watch.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Frank is too busy driving while waving at his brother behind his car to notice a massive train coming towards him.
  • Foreshadowing: Frank's mother comments that he has been taking too many chances on the road.
  • Go Out with a Smile: But only because Frank and Betty are oblivious to the danger of the oncoming train. They are presumably still waving back at Alan and smiling at the instant the train strikes the car.
  • Idiot Ball: Multiple drivers ignoring basic safety rules … but most prominently Frank Jr. At least twice, he is shown crossing the tracks in front of a train, but managing to clear the tracks mere seconds before the train speeds through the crossing. The odds catch up with Frank Jr. in the end, although ironically enough, he is not trying to beat a train this time; it is his inattention to the crossing ahead – the flashing lights of the railroad sign and the train horn – that causes the deadly wreck. But at least three other drivers - one Al's friend, another a middle-aged man who was trying to pass another car while overtopping a hill and still another an elderly man who fell asleep behind the wheel (his wife, too, is presumably killed) – are killed during the course of the film.
    • Trooper Hal points out multiple times that while an offending driver may have gotten away with violating traffic laws or ignoring safety rules without consequence many times before, his moral is that it only takes one time to become the victim in a deadly crash. For instance, with the man who passed several cars while climbing a hill in a clearly marked no passing zone, Hal mentions that it was his first – and last – accident.
  • Jump Scare: "Now where did THAT train come from?"
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Trooper Hal.
  • Neon City: The film warns about how distracting the neon signs of a big city can be to drivers. This includes a few shots demonstrating how easy it is to miss traffic lights or railroad crossing lights against a background of equally bright signage.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Trooper Hal sets the stage for the then-new superhighway system by reflecting back on the days of the horse-and-buggy, Ford Model Ts and tandem bicycles – all of which he says weren't just showpieces in old-time festivals but a legitimate part of life and within the lifetimes of most people 50 and older at the time of filming (summer 1959). Hal also reflects on quiet country roads and that everyone at the time stopped for railroad crossings, contrasting that with modern highways – the interstate highway system was in its infancy, although there were still plenty of four-lane superhighways in the late 1950s – and even railroad overpasses and underpasses that allow trains to pass through urban areas and/or travel over or under major highways without impeding traffic. Hal prefaces this, however, with the obligatory caution and his whole point: While highways (and cars) have gotten better and safer, the human body has not changed and that drivers need to be even more careful now and pay heed to all traffic laws all the time.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Much of the premise of the movie – trains pose a danger to drivers, they can be expected at any time of the day or night, double tracks can mean double trouble particularly with a second train just after the first one clears the crossing ... and the trope can be enforced if basic safety rules and warnings aren't heeded (ergo, the results of a car-train collision will likely be deadly). Indeed, the trope is reality for Frank Jr. and his fiancé, Betty (who initially survives but it is implied that she, too, will die). The rest of the movie is padded out by reinforcing other driving safety tips.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Trooper Hal's ending monologue is essentially this to those who he pull over because they weren't following the rules.
    Hal: My place was out on the road. Out on the road, I can at least try to keep people from killing themselves in their car. So, if the next car I stop happens to be yours, don't tell me you were only "speeding a little", only "breaking the law a little", only doing something a little bit wrong; save that for someone else, brother! Because I've seen too many "little follies", and they end up with someone "a little bit dead''.
  • Safe Driving Aesop: A cop drops in on a farm family to explain to the youngest son—who just got his driver's license—all the ways he could die horribly if he drives carelessly. Especially if he drives carelessly near railroad tracks. And then, because they live in a cruel, merciless world, the older brother crashes his car into the side of a moving train—killing himself and his fiancee—not ten minutes later.
    Railroad employee: Why don't they look, Carl? Why don't they look?
  • Scare 'em Straight: Although it contrasted with many other driver's ed films of the era — less preachy (it used a drama presentation, plus Boyett's natural conversational-style narration vs. the lecturing of other safety films) and less graphic (many driver's ed films prior to the 1970s showed graphic carnage of actual accident victims and destroyed cars) — it still made its point: Obey all safety rules all of the time or you risk becoming a statistic.
    • In-universe, Alan reading the accident report that killed his friend and then witnessing the car-train crash that killed his brother and sister-in-law-to-be, it can be implied, is enough to instill safe driving habits in him for life.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: The opening scene is of a funeral procession, which we learn is for Frank Jr.; this is followed by Trooper Hal's lament of frustration at why drivers fail to heed basic, common-sense rules of the road, even if they know full well that an instant of a bad decision could result in death and destruction.
  • Tonight, Someone Dies: Foreshadowed with the opening – a state patrol trooper stopping at the entrance to a cemetery but declining to go inside. He almost immediately reveals that the eldest son of a close friend had died.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Hey, look! Someone's desperately gesturing to look directly ahead of us at the oncoming train! Let's wave back!
    Servo: Hey, the cop never said anything about doing intensely stupid things!
  • Truth in Television: People do all these things and more around railroad crossings, even to this day. Operation Lifesaver exists for a reason. As well, the family in the short and what happens to them was based on a real family that went through a similar experience.
  • Wham Line: "Why don't they look?"
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Following the opening scene of a funeral procession, Trooper Hal reflects back to just a few days earlier, when he stopped at the farm place of a family friend to visit and advise their youngest, newly licensed son, about driver safety.
  • Women Drivers: A woman driver reads a map instead of paying attention to the road. Used as a punchline for a joke on Mystery Science Theater 3000.


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