Excitement rides the rails


"American Intelligence has been receiving tape cassettes, revealing political and 
military strategy, from a high-placed Russian official. 
But with the official's cover about to be blown, he seeks sanctity in the West.
As a result, when the Atlantic Express pulls out of Milan train station, it carries 
on board the highest-ranking official ever to leave Russia ... the head of the K.G.B.
A hand-picked team of American agents is assigned to get him safely to his destination 
in the face of Iron Curtain agents, under orders to stop at nothing in order to 
exterminate the defector."
AVALANCHE EXPRESS - Behind the Scenes of an underrated Spy Thriller from the 70s. 
The Locations, the Special Effects.
Kit West, Special Effects on 'Avalanche Express', was so kind and explains to us 
how much work and effort lies behind this suspenseful 'sunday afternoon' movie.
Excitement rides the rails at lightning speed!

The film was accompanied by major advertising campaigns.
In Germany 20th Century-Fox released (inter alia) several very big round stickers (25cm).
What should you do with it? 
If you hang such a giant lobes on your window, you have a solar eclipse...

Kit West (left) on the way to Munich (Germany) with his Special Effects assistant 
Jeff Clifford (right) to design the SPFX for 'Avalanche Express'.
Kit West (Supervisor) and his Crew, Jeff Clifford (SPFX assistant) and Peter Dawson 
(SPFX assistant, not on the photo), were responsible for all the practical 'on floor'  effects.
The 'snowy adventure' started in the station of Basel (Switzerland).
Actually filmed in a part the Main Train Station of Munich, which is called the 
'Starnberger Flügelbahnhof' (track 27-36).
Munich - Starnberger Flügelbahnhof.
All the snow you see in the scene is artificial.
The SPFX Dept was snowing up all the locations around Munich station.
Kit: "95% of the snow on the movie was artificial."
Kit West (right) in Munich station, snowing up the location with extinguishing foam.
Expyrol Type F15 (yellow canister) is a special extinguishing foam for firefighters.
Kit: "Yes, the liquid in the yellow canister is extinguishing foam, used by fire 
fighting crew. We used it to cover large areas of the background. 
It had one great drawback, after a while, if the wind picked up, it foamed up
and blew across the set..."
Agent Neckermann (the legendary Arthur Brauss!) - Munich Station.
Kit West (SPFX) talking with publicist Vic Heutschy (right) - Munich Station.
Director Mark Robson on Set in Munich discussing the K.G.B. attack on Arthur Brauss.
The K.G.B. agents (Dan van Husen,...) want to catch out a cassette sent by the defecting 
head of Russia's K.G.B., Marenkov (Robert Shaw)!
Dan van Husen (left) is talking with Joe Namath.
A great little job for the supporting roles cult performer Dan van Husen!
Joe Namath (Leroy) on Set in Munich. 
He looks at the many canisters of Expyrol F15 Kit and his crew needed to 
trigger a snow storm in Munich.
The journey continues. We reach Zürich central station.
But we have actually never leave Munich. We just went to another track.
It is only a short walk to the main station of Munich (Track 11-26). 
A small kiosk was built here and decorated in Swiss colors.
Leroy (Joe Namath) gives a cassette of the K.G.B. defector -inconspicuous- to 
Wargrave (Lee Marvin).
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Comparison photo of Munich central station. The location for 'Zürich' and 'Basel'.
Only a stone's throw distance from each other! - That's cinema!
Wargrave (Lee Marvin) leaves the Munich station. Everywhere is 'Expyrol-snow'.
The street is called Arnulf Street.
The SPFX Dept is snowing up the Arnulf Street (near 'Pfeffer' street). April 1978.
What the walkers might have thought? ...a major fire in the station, a car accident?

Now Wargarve and his agents are in Milan, Piazza della Scala, to protect and secure 
the K.G.B. defector (Robert Shaw).
In the background you can see the Palazzo Marino.
The Snow, you guessed it, is all artificial!
A wild chase with the K.G.B. begins.
Joe Namath - Mike Connors - Claudio Cassinelli - Lee Marvin - Robert Shaw
Director Mark Robson checked the tickets. Do not push ... everyone gets a seat!
The K.G.B. (Mercedes) pursues the defector (in a Fiat) over the Cathedral Square.
Kit West snowing up the 'Piazzo del Duomo' in front of the 'Duomo di Milano'.
Kit, those are precious cultural assets/monuments. How was that possible?
Kit:"Carsten, the snow all had to be biodegradable, and we had a 'wash down' 
crew to follow all the effected locations. Fire fighting pumps were 
used to 'lay down' the snow, and also to dispose of it afterwards."

The car chase ends in a beautiful patio in Casalmaggiore (Italy).
The case snaps! The K.G.B. Agents can no longer escape.
On Set in Casalmaggiore (patio). The spring in Italy is warm, may 1978.
Kit gives the K.G.B. Mercedes the finishing 'blizzard' touch.
Kit West and Director Mark Robson in Casalmaggiore with italian Crew and stuntmen.
On the left, with the script in hand, Script Girl Angela Allen.
In the background you can see the 'Duomo Santo Stefano' of Casalmaggiore.
No chance for the K.G.B. agents - Patio in Casamalggiore.
The crew wearing T-shirts, this snow is certainly not real ...
Director Mark Robson (right) on Set in Casamalggiore.
You could easily find the Patio with Google Earth ... but the 'Street View' car 
has not found the way.
Marenkov (Robert Shaw) has a plan to checkmate the K.G.B. Wargrave (Lee Marvin) and Haller (Mike Connors) go bait fishing with the K.G.B.
Commandos are out to stop wargrave and kill Marenkov.

K.G.B. agent Rudi Mühler (the great Günter Meisner) arrived in Zürich?
Through the door you can see a lot of snow. It might be in Zürich.
Well, Kit has already told us, that we almost exclusively see artificial snow 
in the movie...
The 'Herbson-SA. Import-Export' is a front company, an office of the K.G.B.
Bunin (Maximilian Schell) and Rudi develop their dangerous plans in this hideout.
Where was this very short scene (just seconds) shot?
It took some time and research but then I found the location!
The K.G.B. office was in Munich, Nymphenburger Street 191.
An Art Nouveau building by architect Pius Strecker from 1902.
Of course, this house is a listed building. 
Presumably, they have set a wrong door before the real door.
The Snow Crew in Munich, Nymphenburger Street.
The third from the left is Jeff Clifford (SPFX Assistant) and right next to him 
Peter Dawson (SPFX Assistant).
A large area was covered with foam / artificial snow (Expyrol F15).
What an enormous hassle for such a tiny scene.
The photos -never published before (!)- are from 8mm negatives (Minox C).
I did my best, but the starting material is rather mediocre.
Behind Rudi you can see a small house. 
This is a kiosk and a waiting room ('Warteraum') on the Nymphenburger Street.
Rudi (Günter Meissner) Bunin (Maximilian Schell)
Munich Snow Dept. - Peter Dawson, Jeff Clifford and Kit West.
Standing in the background, Vic Heutschy (publicist).
The journey continues ...
Undersoil heating or artificial snow?

We arrive at the Swiss border at Chiasso. 
This night scene was filmed in Cremona, Italy, may 1978.
The italian magazine 'ferrovie italmodel' Nr.219 (October 1978) shows a photo of 
the 'Avalanche Express' and presents a little story about the filming in Cremona.

The K.G.B. is planning another attack. 
Here we see Kit West (center) snowing up the location for the night shooting of 
the K.G.B. raid.
With a foam gun the artificial snow is distributed over a large area.
Kit: "The snow making material was manufactured for us by the same company 
who make fire fighting materials, but it was developed to last a lot longer 
before dissolving."
Breaking Glass and numerous bullit hits on each take of this sequence.
These bullit hits look really awesome!
A lot of work for the the Fx unit. 
They also did the 'frost dressing' of the entire train!
Kit West: "I am so glad you admired the bullet hits on the train.
They took a hell of a long time to prepare. We took the railway carriage to 
the workshop in Munich studios (Bavaria), and drilled out every hit that was 
required, then punched out around the holes left by the drill. 
Then we inserted, from the back, the electric squibs, and plastered over 
the holes. Then over to the paint department to rub down, 
and paint to original colour. 
We then added the frosting down effect. 
It all took a very long time, but I am pleased you noticed them."
Look at these bullit hits!
A foam mud mixture and as if that is not enough even pyrotechnics!
Wet from the bottom, hot from the top - the life of an Extra!
John (Sky DuMont) is revealed as a traitor and wants to escape. What a foam carpet!
Wargrave (Lee Marvin) shoots the traitor.
German Lobby Card - Extras take a bubble bath.
Kit West with a snow sample. 
Kit: "The bag of 'snow granules' we used for foreground coverage. 
It was quite expensive, but left very convincing foot prints. 
You could also pick it up and make snowballs out of it. 
These days, a company called SNOW BUSINESS have developed numerous 
products which have made snow scenes far easier to create, making it quite an art."
Wow, a real train in the studio!?
Sitting in the chair is Director Mark Robson. Behind the camera is Alec Mills 
(camera operator). Frank Elliot (focus puller) is the guy with the black jacket. 
On the right key grip Chunky Huse.
Kit: "We did lay tracks in and out of the stage, at Baveria Studios, to allow us 
to bring in a real, full size, railway carriage, and to roll it in and out when required."
In the Bavaria Studios the FX Unit tested a few avalanche effects.
Kit: "...as you say these are 'snow dumping' tests during preperation, 
using 'snow foam' chemicals mixed with water, and dumped from tip tanks 
on towers."
(8mm negatives in bad quality).
The avalanche effect was tested on a VW bus (Bulli). 
The Bulli has certain similarities with the train!

KGB henchmen solve an devastating avalanche to stop the Atlantic-Express.
Model Miniature Train.
The entire 'avalanche' sequence was a model miniature designed by Apogee in L.A. (USA).
John Dykstra ('Silent Running', 'Star Wars', 'Battlestar Galactica',...) was
the supervisor of special effects in the USA on 'Avalanche Express'.
His 'Apogee' Crew worked on the special photographic and miniature effects.
Chief model maker was the legendary artist Grant McCune!
No one of these guys attended the shooting in Europe!
A few carriages are blasted off to be faster and to reach a safe tunnel.
(Model Miniature)
The remaining express train escapes before the avalanche in the tunnel!
(Model miniature)
Avalanche composite shot of model scenes and real ones (?).

The exciting train ride continues.
The renowned cinematographer Jack Cardiff (left) and Director Mark Robson on 
set. Jack Cardiff was director of photography for 'Avalanche Express'.
He was one of the most sought-after and respected cinematographers with a long list of great films.
German Lobby Card.

The train reached Maastricht (Holland). 
The scene was filmed in Italy, in the station of Parma.

Soon we reach the bridge over the Maas in Holland.
The bridge sequence was actually filmed in Italy using the River Po bridge 
of Casalmaggiore.
The terrorist group 'GEIGER' is planning an attack.
Geiger (David Hess): 'What do you want them to do?'
Bunin (Maximilian Schell): 'What they always do, blow up something!'
Olga (Sylvia Longova) pulls the safety pins from the hand grenades...
...and storms into the train driver cabin with 2 grenades. Stop the train!
Leroy (Joe Namath) grabs Olga (Sylvia Langova) and the grenades and jumps from the train.
German Lobby Card showing the scene.
For the close-ups both jump on a thick soft mat.
The 'train' is a mock up built on a trailer. 
The model was also used on the bridge for the stuntmen scene.
The stuntcrew did the real jumping off the train scenes.
Fairly elaborate shooting ...
The green locomotive pushes the film set and equipment on the Po bridge of Casalmaggiore.
On the far right you can see the mock up of a half blue locomotive (Atlantic Express).
Under the green tarp is probably the camera crew. 
And the blue truck on the trailer is for camera and lighting equipment, 
possibly a lighting generator. An incredible effort...
The crew on the Casalmaggiore bridge filming the Joe Namath/stuntman scene 
(jump off the train). We can take a look in the equipment truck...
Kids, it's dangerous to jump with hand grenades from a train!
Now we see again the real 'Atlantic-Express' on the bridge.
Olga and Leroy disappear in a fireball...
Kit: "The charge under the bridge was suspended on wires from the bridge, 
and electrically detonated."
The 'Geiger terror group' attacks!
There are some wonderful German Lobby Cards of the 'Geiger Attack'.
River Po - Casalmaggiore.
German Lobby Cards
Director Mark Robson, Horst Buchholz, Lee Marvin,... on set in Casalmaggiore.
Lee Marvin is talking with Maximilian Schell and a Crew guy.
Geiger (David Hess) wants to escape - Wargrave (Lee Marvin) would like to prevent that.
Bridge of Casalmaggiore.
German Lobby Card of the Scene.
Geiger, leader of a terrorist group. 
An ideal role for exploitation movie actor David Hess 
(The Last House on the Left, Autostop rosso sangue, La casa sperduta nel parco).
Lee Marvin - German Lobby Card.
He is one of my favorite actors...such types there are no more today!
Kit: "Carsten, I have to tell you Lee Marvin was one of the nicest gentleman 
I ever worked with in this business. I spent many hours with him, off the set, 
(glass in hands, of course) just talking, and listening 
to his wonderful stories of his long, but not long enough, history in the
film industry. As you know, I worked on two films, back to back with him 
(Avalanche Express and The Big Red One) so you can imagine I spent many 
enjoyable sessions with him. 
He was great to be with him, and I was devastated at his passing. 
My wife also spent many happy times with his lovely wife."
Lee Marvin died on 29 August 1987, of a heart attack.
Some test shots...
The catering boss has ordered a few ducks.
German Lobby Card - Geiger is dead...
David Hess and Lee Marvin talk on the bridge. 
The end of a terrorist.
Director Mark Robson with Linda Evans.
Elsa (Linda Evans) on the Po Bridge of Casalmaggiore.
German Lobby Card - a promotion shot.
Bunin (Maximilian Schell) manages to escape.
At sea, a ship is waiting for the K.G.B. deputy commissioner.

Lee Marvin (in the black 'Geiger group' outfit) talking with Director 
Mark Robson and Script Girl Angela Allen.
The guys wearing the outfits of the dead Geiger group...and chase after Bunin.
Preparations for some close-ups with the Stars. 
Of course, the boat remains in port...
The end result on a German Lobby Card.
Is that full speed ahead or port romance?
The launching of torpedoes being prepared by the SPFX Crew.
On the left side, Jeff Clifford (SPFX assistant).
Kit West (SPFX) fixing dummy torpedo to motor launch.
Kit: "The torpedos were propelled from the boat with a pyrotechnic charge, but 
they only travelled about fifteen meters."
Firing of a torpedo - looks good!
Hey, the dummies run only 15 meters not 1500! You have to get closer!
Hit! Wow, the torpedo explodes above the water line?
Playing with the machine gun ...
What's that? An Italian hunting party?
Kit: "The guy in the white stetson hat, is Fred Tuch the Art Director on 
'Avalanche Express', and all the other guys are Italian armoury people, 
showing Fred what they suggested to be used in the final sequence." 
The final fireworks.

The end of the filming is marked by great sadness.
Director Mark Robson died of a heart attack on 20 June 1978th.
Monte Hellman (Director) did the final cutting of the movie.
The photo shows an accident of Mark Robson on Set, but no one seems to 
remember what happened.
Robert Shaw (Marenkov) also died of a heart attack, on August 28, 1978th.

'Avalanche Express' wasn't the first film Kit West did with Director Mark Robson (left).
They worked on 'Lost Command' together in Spain.
Learn more about Kit's adventures in Spain here: www.kit-west-almeria.com

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