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Nitro Express

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Jim West, Wild Wild West

Nitroglycerine is an unstable substance, prone to explode at the first serious physical shock, and handling it is a nerve-wracking experience. What better way to ramp up the tension level in a story than to have the protagonists be forced to transport bottles of nitroglycerin a long distance through a hostile, dangerous environment?

This trope is likely to be in an old movie or Period Piece plot where the heroes are required to move nitroglycerine (or some other unstable, highly explosive substance) across bad terrain (rough ground, winding roads, etc.). A common substitute is dynamite — while the whole point of it is that it's much more stable, it has a narratively convenient downside of "sweating" nitroglycerine after long periods of storage.

See also Explosive Stupidity.

There is a series of "Nitro Express" firearm cartridges in varying sizes, which are designed for hunting African megafauna. The "Nitro" in these refers to nitrocellulose (which is relatively stable), not nitroglycerine. Any examples of "Nitro Express" firearms fit much better under BFG. Nor should it be confused with Nitro Boost, the use of nitrous oxide gas in an engine, which makes cars go faster.

Sub-Trope of Product Delivery Ordeal.


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    Comic Books 
  • One Donald Duck comic subverts this: Donald is ordered to carry a crate of explosives and thus thinks this is what he is doing, and spends the journey being terrified (since he has his usual luck). However at the end it's pointed out that he's carrying dynamite which of course doesn't detonate by shock, it needs a triggering explosive to go off.
  • The Lucky Luke album Nitroglycerine is about Luke escorting a single large crate of the stuff on a train, as it's headed for a Union Pacific site and the Central Pacific is trying to sabotage it. This is not helped by the fact that the Daltons see such a heavily guarded crate and figure it must contain a fortune in gold being sent to a place called "Nitro". The nitro's reputation reaches Memetic Badass levels: an entire cavalry regiment runs like hell as soon as the train gets underway, the engineer recalls that he wasn't this scared the time he had Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Calamity Jane on his train, Luke almost has a heart attack when he sees the Daltons about to Shoot Out the Lock, and when Joe Dalton finally learns what the crate he's been chasing and occasionally taking cover behind contains, he faints.

    Fan Works 
  • Happens with the "Flare Juice" that Shingyung's rebel team intends to turn into a bomb in Retroactive. This does not end well.
  • In Robb Returns, hundreds of barrels of wildfire are dug out from various caches under King's Landing, and need to be shipped off to the Wall for use against the Others. Ser Davos Seaworth is tapped to do the shipping, with Oberyn Martell, who knows how to make the wildfire (somewhat) more stable, accompanying.
  • Used in Chapter 15 of Soul Eater: Troubled Souls,, although Kilik and Rowena are attempting to stop a vehicle capable of explosive mass destruction, rather than transport it safely.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Chill Factor: A 1999 movie that's perfectly described as this trope on ice. Two civilians have to deliver a highly unstable substance that will detonate if it gets above fifty degrees to a military base in an ice cream truck.
  • Danger Patrol, a 1937 film about "soup handlers" hauling nitro around the oilfields.
  • Four Lions: Five wannabe mujahadeen have to transport home-made explosives from one "secure" location to another (a squat to an allotment shed). They start off driving very slowly and carefully, but the car breaks down. They then have to do a very silly run the rest of the way (to avoid jarring the explosives and setting them off). A deleted scene includes a chase sequence, while still carrying them. One guy takes a wrong turn into a field, trips over a sheep, and blows himself (and the sheep) sky high.
  • In the end of The Giant Gila Monster, the protagonist drives a hot-rod across uneven ground towards the Gila Monster, with the passenger seat full of unstable nitro.
  • The Legend of Zorro: The hero and the villain have a swordfight on top of a train loaded with the stuff.
  • Double subverted in Rooster Cogburn from 1975 starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn. Marshall Cogburn and Eula Goodnight travel downriver by raft, carrying firearms and explosives, including boxes of nitro glycerin. The raft takes a wild ride through some whitewater rapids, but none of the nitro detonates. Once the raft reaches calmer waters, Hawk and his outlaws wait in ambush to recapture the munitions. Cogburn and Goodnight gently float the boxes of nitro in the river, where they drift downstream toward the outlaws. Cogburn then uses a rifle to trigger the nitro to blow the outlaws to smithereens.
  • A subplot of Only Angels Have Wings revolves around the dangerous task of an Ace Pilot flying out a crate of nitroglycerine to a mining camp.
  • Averted in The Professionals. Dolworth separates the sticks of dynamite that are sweating from the others, leaving them in a well-ventilated area to dry out. He demonstrates the volatility of the nitro by flicking the 'sweat' off his finger, causing a loud bang. Later Farden opens fire on where they stacked the nitro to blow it up to cover their escape.
  • Unstoppable is about a Runaway Train with eight tank cars filled with toxic chemicals. And it's headed for certain derailment at an oil tank farm, for added drama.
  • In the film Vertical Limit, the characters must transport nitroglycerin up K2 as part of a rescue mission. And no, we don't know why they couldn't take some dynamite either. Possibly because it was the only thing that they had on base (Base Camp also doubled as military camp), and they were crunched for time.
  • The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur), a classic 1953 French film. When a South American oil well owned by an American company catches fire, the company hires four European men, down on their luck, to drive two trucks over mountain dirt roads, carrying the nitroglycerine needed to extinguish the fire. Remade as Violent Road (a.k.a. Hell's Highway) in 1958, and Sorcerer in 1977.
  • At the beginning of the Wild Wild West film, Captain Jim West jumps on a wagon carrying cases of the stuff (with only hay for padding) for a renegade regiment of the former Confederacy.
    Jim West: This! Is Not! The Way! You Transport! Nitro!!!
  • In the film Young Tom Edison, while on a train Tom shows an army captain his latest invention, which he calls "Tom Edison High Powerful All-Explosive #1." After listing the ingredients, the captain tells him that it's nitroglycerin. They pull the emergency stop cord, and while the train is on a bridge, Tom has to carefully lower the jar with the nitro in it down into the river.


    Live-Action TV 
  • Played with in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, where two yokels who accidentally pick up a container of nitroglycerin (somehow mistaking it for fertilizer) manhandle it for the entire episode. It is only when it is dropped down a well that it finally explodes.
  • In The A-Team episode, "Diamonds N' Dust", the team are transporting dynamite — which is not normally volatile until/unless it has a blasting cap attached — but it is really really hot and as a result the sticks of dynamite were sweating nitroglycerine.
  • Parodied in Beakman's World, where Lester bringing a bottle of the stuff from the "REALLY DANGEROUS STUFF" cabinet to the couch is portrayed like this. Of course, the whole point of the segment was to explain how Alfred Nobel made the Nitro Express inventing dynamite.
  • The Big Valley in an episode called, "Explosion". Nick, Heath, and Jarrod have to bring nitro to a forest that is on fire, and blow a fire-break.
  • In the 1970s mini-series Captains and the Kings, protagonist Joseph Armagh starts making his fortune in Pennsylvania by driving 20-mule teams loaded with nitroglycerin to oil wells. The job is very well paid because drivers don't last long and are unwilling to join up. He leaves the job after several weeks, being one of their longest-lasting drivers.
  • Casey Jones: In "Lethal Journey", ten men are trapped following a mining accident and Casey volunteers to carry a cargo of nitroglycerine aboard the Cannonball in a race against time.
  • In an episode of Copper Robert Morehouse assists a Confederate agent in transporting a wagon full of Greek Fire. It is a liquid that bursts into flames when exposed to air and cannot be extinguished with water. Should one of the barrels leak, the entire wagon could explode. The situation is not helped by the fact that Robert is working against the Confederates and is trying to sabotage their plans by making sure that the Greek Fire never reaches New York.
  • Doctor Who: "Pyramids of Mars". The Doctor and Sarah Jane hatch a plan to blow up Sutekh's rocket-pyramid. They come upon a store of blasting gelignite (a variant of dynamite) in the Poacher's stores, leading to one of the best Doctor/Companion exchanges in the show's history:
    [Sarah Jane finds the gelignite, and throws it to the Doctor]
    The Doctor: Sweaty. Gelignite. Is. Highly Unstable. One good sneeze could set it off... [he puts it down] Did you find any fuses?
    Sarah Jane: No. Perhaps he sneezed.
    [the Doctor gives her the death glare to end all death glares]
  • The first episode of Gemini Man centers on The Hero protecting an inventor and his super fuel additive from the minions of the "international oil cartel". However, the inventor has already sold out to the oil companies and plans on Faking the Dead using the additive's explosive properties (a large beakerful supposedly being enough to take out a small town). As Mike and the Bots point out, the actual explosion wouldn't destroy a town ("Maybe singe a bed-and-breakfast", Crow remarks).
  • Gilligan's Island had Gilligan drinking from a glass and thinking he had swallowed nitroglycerin. Everyone was worried that he might explode, though, if it had been nitroglycerin, he would have died from poisoning even if he could avoid the explosive effect.
  • An episode of Grey's Anatomy had the surgeons trying to remove a bomb from inside a man's chest before a disposal team could deactivate it, and naturally included a scene where they had to push the gurney very slowly down a corridor. After removing the bomb, the bomb squad guy is slowly carrying it to the disposal unit. The bomb goes off, vaporizing him and nearly killing Meredith.
  • In the Laredo episode "Walk Softly", Texas Rangers have to deliver some nitroglycerin to the army, while somebody else is trying to steal it.
  • Done with blasting oil on Little House on the Prairie. Also had to keep it cool to keep it more stable.
  • On Lost the protagonists find dynamite in the wreck of an old ship and need to transport it through the jungle to blast their way through an obstacle. It is very old and sweating nitroglycerin (and did we mention it's on a jungle island?). They use it on multiple occasions throughout the series and two times one of them is accidentally killed when it blows up
  • The Lucky Luke story is adapted in the Terence Hill series; when Luke points out to Joe Dalton that he's been trying to steal a barrel of nitroglycerine, Joe counters that nitro is stored in tiny bottles, not barrels. But he checks out the barrel just in case, and finds out to his horror that it contains lots of straw stuffing and tiny bottles...
  • MacGyver (1985):
    • The episode "Hellfire". Mac has to transport old, sweating dynamite cross-country from an abandoned mine to extinguish an oilwell fire on a friend's claim.
    • In "Hell Week", a college student snaps and builds a bomb intending to blow himself and the school to kingdom come (and just to make it even more dramatic, he happened to place it in the same building as the nuclear physics lab, meaning it would cause radiation to spread). Said bomb has a "mercury switch", which consists of a drop of mercury placed in the very middle of a precariously balanced Petri dish with wires along the edges set to trigger the bomb if the mercury touches them. With no way to get inside the bomb's mechanism without triggering it (at least for the moment), Mac and the kid's emotionally abusive professor father who started the whole mess have to move the bomb very carefully to an elevator so that the explosion is sufficiently contained underground.
  • In Chapter 15 of The Mandalorian, Din Djarin and Mayfield have to help deliver a shipping of rhydonium, a substance noted for exploding when jostled, or even when moved too quickly for too long, over rough roads and while being attacked by "pirates" who wish to blow up the shipment.
  • Mission: Impossible: "Nitro" has the IMF infiltrating a terrorist group planning to use a truck full of nitroglycerine as an assassination weapon. Much tension is derived from the transportation of the unstable substance.
  • Rawhide: In "Walk Into Terror," A couple of drovers are trapped in an old mine, and another drover, who saw some "gun gel" (possibly gelignite) at an abandoned shack nearby, says he can use that to free them. But first they have to slowly transport the stuff via wagon.
  • On SEAL Team the team intercepts a convoy supposedly carrying radioactive materials. What they actually discover is three Soviet-era nuclear artillery shells. The shells have been stored in a bunker for the last two decades and the conventional explosives in them have become unstable. While the chances of a nuclear explosion are slim, a conventional explosion will still kill anyone near the shells and contaminate a large area with radioactive material. The team must transport the shells to a nearby airfield where specialists can defuse the explosives and remove the nuclear material. However, the roads in the area are unpaved and the only bridge across a river needs serious repair. To complicate matters further, the criminals who stole the shells want them back and send a dozen men to attack the SEALs.
  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Hollow Pursuits", several malfunctions are caused, including any ability to slow the enterprise before it reaches a speed too high for its structure to hold together. Turns out the issue is a container containing a substance called invidium which leaked on the hands of an engineer.
  • Westworld: In "The Riddle of the Sphinx", Craddock forces the barkeep in Las Mudas to walk 12 steps holding a shot glass full of nitro on the back of his hand, only to shoot it when the barkeep finishes. Later, he forces Lawrence's wife to walk to Lawrence holding another one, but William interrupts this by killing most of his men and force-feeding the glass to Craddock.

  • Referenced in Convoy by C. W. McCall. The convoy's unofficial leader, Rubber Duck, asks a chartreuse minibus driven by 'eleven long-haired friends of Jesus' (that is, Hippies) to put their bus in behind a 'suicide jockey'. "Yeah, he's hauling dynamite, and he needs all the help he can get!" Considering that the convoy is, by then, doing 98 MpH and crashing through roadblocks and the like, his worries are understandable — under those conditions, even dynamite (which was specifically designed to be a more stable alternative to nitro) can't be considered particularly safe.
  • Has a Title Drop in the song "Nitro Express" by Red Simpson, here sung by Junior Brown.

    Video Games 
  • Blast Corps is about tearing up stuff to clear the path for a truck carrying two defective nukes that will blow up with as much as a little jolt.
  • Castlevania 64 has a part in the game where you have to carry Nitro. If you jump, fall, or take a single hit at any time while carrying it you have to start ALL OVER AGAIN!
  • Conker's Bad Fur Day: During the Uga Buga chapter, Conker is caught freeing her girlfriend Berri and trying to leave the Rock Solid nightclub with the money she gathered while strip-teasing. The mafia leader Don Weaso decides to spare him in exchange for a favor: To carry a Cartoon Bomb and drop it onto a volcano's core to make the lava's level rise and eradicate the surrounding Uga Bugas (Weaso holds beliefs based on Fantastic Racism against them), and Conker has to hurry because the fuse is already lit. The squirrel has to go through a small passageway, a prolonged descending slope, the mucous interior of a dinosaur with moving uvulas, and finally the corridor leading to the destination. All while also dodging the club swings from wandering Uga Bugas. Being hit by any attack or hazard, or taking too long, will lead to the bomb exploding, killing Conker in the process.
  • The bomb disposal driving mission in Die Hard Trilogy 2. One bump, you get a warning. Two bumps, it explodes.
  • In one mission of Driver, you must deliver a crate of unstable explosives in a pickup truck across the hills of San Francisco. Oh, the crate isn't tied down in any way and moves around as you drive.
  • The Supernova DLC for Galaxy on Fire 2 has several missions where you are required to transport highly unstable substances from one system to another. This means no afterburners or sharp turns, meaning you can't maneuver to get out of danger. Also, a few good hits by the enemy is enough to set off the cargo, no matter your shields and armor state. Your own weapons also partly fill the "red meter". These missions absolutely require an Invisibility Cloak (although the best one out there only lasts 40 seconds) and a good dose of luck (or Save Scumming). Essentially, it's a good idea to stop at a Space Station (i.e. Save Point) after every jump. Oh, and you're also not allowed to use the instantaneous Khador Drive, as it would set off the cargo, meaning you have to stick to the good old-fashioned gates. The first time you have to do it isn't too bad, although the fact that you're, essentially, carrying a quick hangover cure ruins the mood. The second time you need to collect (from a warzone, no less) the highly-unstable red plasma and move it across the galaxy, as you can't pay someone to transport it for you (as you can with any other cargo).
  • Some missions in the Grand Theft Auto series have you drive a vehicle carrying explosives that will blow if you bump it too much.
  • One Escort Mission in Quake IV has a demolitions expert carrying explosives that will "take out half the mountain" if set off.
  • The remake of Resident Evil has you walk slowly while carrying the nitro compound to refuel the lab power generator, or you get a Game Over.
  • Space Quest:
  • Spyro the Dragon titles have several missions which involve Spyro clearing a path for a character who has lit a bomb and must run it to a destination. Expect much restarting while you learn the path the characters in question take to their destination.

    Western Animation 
  • Bob's Burgers: In "Bridge Over Troubled Rudy", the Belcher kids try to carry Rudy's Blaster Bridge toy to his mother's house without setting off the explosives. Things go fine until the last street is closed for repairs and they have to take a short cut through the rough trail in the woods behind the house.
  • Chowder: In "The Blast Raz", the gang have to deliver a crate of highly explosive and unstable blast raz fruit. Their route takes them over a pothole-filled road, across a storm-tossed lake and up the side of an active volcano.
  • DuckTales (1987): At the beginning of "Launchpad's First Crash", Scrooge and Launchpad are transporting some dynamite to Scrooge's copper mines. Scrooge is nervous even before the crash, and things only get worse when the dynamite gets scattered around them, meaning it could blow them up if lightning hits it.
  • Futurama: In "The Mutants Are Revolting", the team has to deliver a cake with nitroglycerine to Lady Astor (for her heart condition). There is even a rickety old bridge they have to cross.
  • In a first-season episode of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero "Captives of Cobra", the Joes are trying to secretly transport highly volatile crystals which will explode if jostled too hard. Naturally, since Cobra discovers their route, Duke, Tripwire and Gung-Ho have to divert over an unpaved mountain pass while the rest of the team covers their escape.
  • Jana of the Jungle had an oil well fire episode. The bits that weren't out of The Wages of Fear, were out of Rooster Cogburn (with modifications, this is a kid's show, so no one gets so much as a nasty boo-boo).
  • One episode of the animated Spirou & Fantasio had the protagonists unwittingly transporting a truckload of "nitrotonic".
  • Thunderbirds Are Go: In "Path of Destruction", a truck carrying Nutrezine, a highly volatile fuel, is trapped by a rock slide and International Rescue are called to assist. They soon discover that the rock slide was not an accident and that Fuse is trying to hijack the truck. Virgil and Gordon must escort the truck through the treacherous mountain pass to its destination and stop Fuse from causing more chaos.
  • Wild West COW Boys Of Moo Mesa had an episode featuring this.

    Real Life 
  • During the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, this is the job that tended to get fobbed off to the Chinese migrant workers. Looney Tunes-style slapstick does not ensue, as shown in this Heritage Minute.
  • Bizarrely, there was a real-life case of this in Ohio, 2001. Known as the CSX 8888 Incident or the "Crazy Eights" Incident after the number of the lead locomotive, a train containing a few cars loaded with hazardous chemicals got loose thanks to a careless mistake and went barreling down the tracks for a 66 mile trip. Thankfully, while scary as hell, the drama never got up to Hollywood levels; the train maintained an easy pace through the trip, never hitting more than 45mph, giving the local Emergency Services time to clear the route. They eventually stopped it by hooking another locomotive onto the back, used that to slow it down so an engineer could jump on and hit the brakes. The event went on to inspire the movie Unstoppable, mentioned above.