Adventures on a Bullet Train

The United States has had no military draft since 1973, so the armed forces have to recruit. One recent television ad showed troops rushing into action and asks potential recruits: “which way would you run?” That may have caught the attention of Spencer Stone of Sacramento, California.

He joined the U.S. Air Force but did not get the job he wanted because of poor depth perception. Still, he carried on and, along with military tactics, learned how to keep a wounded person alive.

In August 2015, Stone was vacationing in Europe with Sacramento friends Anthony Sadler and Alex Skarlatos, who was also in the military, with service in Afghanistan. The three friends were en route from Amsterdam to Paris, and at a stop in Belgium, Moroccan Ayoub El Khazzani boarded the train with a pistol, a box cutter, an AK-47 and more than 300 rounds of ammunition.

The terrorist El Khazzani sought to kill as many innocents and possible and after shooting one passenger, he moved into the Americans’ car with his AK-47 at the ready. Spencer Stone may have had poor depth perception, but he knew which way he would run. The unarmed American charged the terrorist, whose rifle had misfired, and took some wicked slashes in the ensuing struggle.

While Stone maintained the choke hold he had learned in the Air Force, Skarlatos and Sadler duly joined the fray and subdued the terrorist, trussing up the Moroccan like a hog. Then Stone deployed his Air Force medical training to save the wounded passenger. Nobody was going to die on this bullet train, and the French did more just than praise the three Americans as heroes. Indeed, President François Hollande presented the three Americans with the Légion D’honneur, France’s highest award.

As Michael Corleone would say, that’s a terrific story. In fact, it was so terrific that it caught the attention of Clint Eastwood, well into his 80s but not yet in his emeritus years. Eastwood duly produced and directed a movie of the train attack, “The 15:17 to Paris,” casting Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos as themselves in a new kind of cinéma vérité.

The backstories of the three in Sacramento gets bogged down, but viewers understand that these are three ordinary American guys, all with a mischievous side. In time they go their separate ways but manage to hook up for a trip around Europe. They have a good time in Italy, Germany, and Holland, all countries visited by many Americans back in those halcyon days of the mid-1940s.

Some critics called “The 15:17 to Paris” an experiment in “stunt casting,” and others charge that Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos, though clearly heroes, are out of their element as actors. That makes sense because, after all, the three had no previous experience on stage or screen. On the other hand, viewers might wonder if any movie star, such as “action hero” Arnold Schwarzenegger, has ever tackled a terrorist with a loaded AK-47 at the ready.

That sequence doesn’t come off like something in “True Lies,” but actual life seldom imitates the movies. The way viewers see it is the way it went down, a clear win for the good guys. That is doubtless what Clint Eastwood wanted to show, and why people have been clapping at the end.

Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler won’t win awards, but who needs an Oscar when you have a Légion d’Honneur? As Sadler said, in a situation like that you have to do something, and these days that applies just about anywhere.

Those out for a walk in New York City may encounter Uzbek Muslim Sayfullo Saipov running down people with a truck. Workers can attend an office Christmas party in San Bernardino, California, and find themselves facing Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who gunned down 14 innocents and wounded many others.

In a situation like that, to adapt Eastwood’s line from “Dirty Harry,” “you gotta ask yourself, which way would you run?” “The 15:17 to Paris” might provide some guidance.

About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

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10 responses to “Adventures on a Bullet Train”

  1. I just saw it and wondered how the three amateurs would handle the acting job. I think it was genius on the part of Eastwood. These three were ordinary guys. Their lives before this extraordinary event were very much like so many others. Using the real men who lived through it was always on your mind as you watched their attempts at acting (actually not quite as bad as professional actors would hope)! I also enjoyed watching Eastwood’s lingering over the site-seeing before they got to Amsterdam. The viewer knew what was coming, so there was a tension inherent in that build up of what would normally be viewed as kind of a boring travelogue. Rushing through that part wouldn’t have worked as well. As a mother of two boys, loved the stories of their childhood and their mothers’ struggles raising rambunctious pre-teens. Standing steadfast against medicating normal boyhood makes them heroes in my eyes as well. Without those strong mothers, would their sons have acted as they did that day on the train?

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    • If one listens to anyone who has been in combat, they describe it as days and days of terrible boredom followed by sudden sheer terror. Maybe that’s what Eastwood wanted to accomplish, casting the actual guys who did it. Saw it yesterday and thought the casting was perfect. They weren’t cartoon action heroes or heroines. They were the real thing.

  2. I really wish Clint Eastwood would produce the movie “BENGHAZI”, and have HITLERy and Obungles both star as themselves.

  3. The guys who played themselves were great, and in fact when they have been interviewed on Fox & Friends, they also played themselves and did the part well, hones, sincere, humble and Patriotic!! Liberals must hate them, the rest of the patriots of America Love them!!! Bravo Guys, you are an inspiration.

  4. We already know which way the leftard sheep will run. And the kicker is the leftard sheep are the ones that have let these Muslim wolves into our folds and accuse anyone who points out that Islam is the common denominator is an Isalmaphope. Even after the Orlando night club where the Muslim purposely targeted leftards, they still scream for gun control instead of dealing w/ the root cause.

  5. Eastwood did something similar in Sully, although not with the leads.The ferry captain played himself as did some of the newscasters.

  6. Harold Russell, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” 1946…the only time the Academy has awarded two Oscars for the same performance.

  7. As far as I can tell, the movie/documentary “Touching the void” was the first film to use actors to recreate the action, while interspersing interviews with the actual participants to say what they were thinking and feeling at the time. It was a remarkably successful approach – Touching the void is a great film – and is used a lot now, for example in “Air Crash Investigations”.

    I’ve not seen the 9-15 film yet – although I certainly will – but I presume there was a reason that Eastwood, Clint Eastwood, didn’t use this approach.