Retro Television Review: Long Journey Back (dir by Mal Damski)

Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Sundays, I will be reviewing the made-for-television movies that used to be a primetime mainstay.  Today’s film is 1978’s Long Journey Back.  It  can be viewed on YouTube!

I’m one of those drivers who always gets nervous around train tracks.

Perhaps it’s because I watched too many gory movies while I was learning to drive or maybe I’m just being overly cautious but I always have a fear that I’m going to be the driver whose car ends up getting stuck on the tracks while the train comes barreling down.  The fact that it’s apparently impossible to just stop a train without it rolling forward for at least a mile or two adds to my fear.  You get stuck on those tracks and, at the very least, you’re going to lose your car.  At the worst, you’ll lose your life.  Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll only lose a limb.  Or maybe …. well, you get the point.  Most people make it a point to slow down whenever they hear the sound of a train coming or to stop and wait for those little barrier things to come down on other side of the tracks.  Myself, I always speed up if I see tracks approaching.  I figure that the quicker I drive over them, the quicker I don’t have to worry about getting hit by a train.

The 1978 film Long Journey Back did not do much to cure me of my fear of train tracks.  Within the first ten minutes of the film, a school bus ended up getting stuck on a set of train tracks and, in a genuinely frightening sequence, smashed into by a train.  Most of the students are killed.  So is the driver.  Celia Casella (Stephanie Zimbalist) survives being in the bus but most of her friends don’t.  Celia loses a leg and, when she eventually awakes from her coma, she can neither speak nor remember the accident.  Celia makes remarkable progress but it’s still difficult for her to adjust her post-accident life.

The film spends as much time with Celia’s parents as it does with Celia.  Her mother, Laura (Cloris Leachman), keeps a journal about Celia’s progress and never gives up faith that her daughter will recover.  However, Laura is sometimes so determined to only focus on moving forward that she overlooks the fact that Celia needs time to mourn not only her former life but also the friends that she lost in the crash.  Meanwhile, Celia’s father, Vic (Mike Connors), is a grim realist who, in a moment of emotional exhaustion, admits that he sometimes wonders if Celia wouldn’t have been better off dying in the crash.  Vic is someone who keeps everyone grounded in reality but who sometimes forget that Celia needs to have hope for the future.  Celia is not the only member of the family who has to learn how to live a new life.  From the minute that train hits that bus, everyone’s old life ends and a new one begins.

The film follows Celia’s recovery, her long journey back.  It’s a well-done film, featuring excellent and emotional performances from Zimbalist, Connors, and especially Leachman.  To its credit, the film avoids easy sentiment.  The film celebrates Celia’s strength and her parent’s love while acknowledging that the journey back is not going to be an easy one and it’s possible that Celia might never make it all the way back.  I cried more than a few times while watching Long Journey Back.  It’s a film that earns its tears.

One response to “Retro Television Review: Long Journey Back (dir by Mal Damski)

  1. Pingback: Lisa’s Week In Review: 9/19/22 — 9/25/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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