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Riding the Rails (1998)

James San Jule , Arvel 'Sunshine' Pearson , Michael Uys , Lexy Lovell  |  NR |  DVD
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)

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Riding the Rails + Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl + The Men Who Built America
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Product Details

  • Actors: James San Jule, Arvel 'Sunshine' Pearson, Rene Champion, Richard Thomas, Peggy De Hart
  • Directors: Michael Uys, Lexy Lovell
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Closed-captioned, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: PBS
  • DVD Release Date: February 25, 2003
  • Run Time: 72 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00008DDS1
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #42,351 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Riding the Rails" on IMDb

Special Features


Editorial Reviews

Don't miss this ride! Riding the Rails tells the unforgettable story of the 250,000 teenagers who left their homes and hopped freight trains during the Great Depression. Featuring a foot-stomping soundtrack of such folk greats as Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Doc Watson, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Riding the Rails vividly combines the clear-eyed memories of witnesses with archival footage of teens riding atop speeding trains and newsreel interviews with lean-bodied kids full of bravado. Striking in its detail and depth of emotion, Riding the Rails is that rare film that will inform, dazzle, and profoundly move its audience. This is not a ride you want to miss. Featuring music by Jimmie Rodgers, Doc Watson, Woodie Guthrie, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry.

Special DVD features include: new video segment featuring an interview with the filmmakers; photo gallery featuring archival images from the National Archives and the Library of Congress; excerpt from the companion book; scene selection; English audiotrack; and closed captions.

On one DVD5 disc. Region coding: All regions. Audio: Dolby stereo. Screen format: Full screen

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ride to Glory May 28, 2003
Format:VHS Tape
Riding the Rails is an extraordinary video documentary that recounts how hundreds of thousands of teenagers during the Great Depression left their homes and hopped freight trains back and forth across America. Most came from families that could no longer support them, but some were just kids in search of adventure. The documentary is built around interviews with about a dozen survivors from that time, now in their seventies and eighties. Their moving stories are augmented by pictures, newsreel footage, and excerpts gleaned from thousands of letters contributed to the project by other survivors. The reminiscences are by turns grim and humorous, hopeful and bitter, tragic and filled with wonder. By the end of the film you'll feel as if you're close friends with these former hobo kids. The music is likewise outstanding, mixing vintage railroad songs and social anthems with original tracks. The overall effect is a kind of bracing nostalgia that is not cloying but consciousness-raising in the best sense. "Riding the Rails" is the winner of 18 major film awards, including Best Documentary of 1997 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. If you have any interest in either railroad lore or 20th century U.S. history, you owe it to yourself not to miss this video. ...
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First-rate overview of its time and place January 18, 2000
By A Customer
Format:VHS Tape
If you're interested in what it was like for real people during the Great Depression, buy this video. It's content is excellent, including stills and films of the era and interviews with old-timers who were there and lived it, both men and women. It's story sequence is great, telling how and why young people came to ride the rails: from poverty to adventure and everywhere between, then talking about what it was really like to live that way: good/bad big town/small town, and closing with the various reasons or ways various youth rejoined society or went on in life. Very significant is the soundtrack, which includes high quality recordings of music of the period and/or the situation, often recordings by the original artists. Purchasers of the video may want to consider also getting the book, IRON MEMORIES: RIDING THE RAILS IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION, by the video director's father, Errol Lincoln Uys. The video is great by itself, but with the book they're really a superior pairing.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Sure, the Great Depression is a part of history that has been studied, examined, exposed and studied some more, but until now the story of 250,000 teen hobos who spent years "Riding the Rails" went largely untold.


This DVD examines the lives of over a dozen Depression-era, freight-train stowaways who spent many of their teen years on the bum, traveling by rail throughout America looking for something better. But what and why? A very diverse group of former rail riders were interviewed including men and women, white and black, but all were teens at the time. This documentary delves into what motivated them and what it was like to be a teenager "riding the rails". In looking at this small group we do see a pattern and reasons which motivated this relatively large group of underaged runaways to choose such a difficult and risky lifestyle.

There are some photographs and archival photos and movietone-news-style film excerpts from the Depression era shown to give perspective. We also see an excerpt of a feature film "Riding The Rails - Teenagers On The Move" made to dissuade youngsters from taking up the lifestyle. Of course it only encouraged more rail runaways despite the tragic depictions of the film. It seems incomprehensible that so many children would take to riding the rails, but they did. This is their story.

All in all, this is a very worthwhile documentary about an almost forgotten piece of American history.


This DVD is part of the "AMERICAN EXPERIENCE" series produced by WGBH - BOSTON. An interview with the filmmakers is included as well as a "slide-show" featuring Depression-era photos. Web sites of interest are also included. It has the scene selection feature and closed captions available.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great of Teenagers April 14, 2008
I am a history teacher and showed this movie to my students and they really enjoyed it. It talked about childern their age (15).
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real eye opener August 1, 2005
Words in the book, by the same name, don't create the same images as the DVD does. Here are the real stories of the real people who lived on the rails and survived to tell about it. Spell binding tales of leaving home and being asked to leave... because there was something better, someplace else... because the family could't afford to feed / support another child. Children setting out on their own to seek... who knows what. My teenage son 'got-it' when my Father and he sat down to watch it.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riding the Rails August 22, 2005
Featuring archival footage of the period and a folk song score from Woody Guthrie (and other balladeers of the time), the films' most memorable sequences are the interviews with the now elderly, respectable folks who eked out existences as young hoboes during the Depression, but still recall the sheer romance and adventure of hopping those freights. A heartwarming glimpse into a defining moment for our country, and how a hearty generation adapted.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars People riding freight trains to look for work across the country.
This will open up your eyes to the lives of people looking for jobs during the depression of the 1930s. Read more
Published 14 days ago by KentCourtney
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Historical Perspective
First-hand accounts of people who lived through important historical times are invaluable for providing a feel and flavor that mere documents and pictures cannot fully provide. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Ann Erbert-Matteson
4.0 out of 5 stars Riding The Rails
Interesting but not up to Ken Burns standards for documentaries. A piece of American culture unknown to the younger generations.
Published 3 months ago by Tolford Durham
5.0 out of 5 stars First Class Work!!!
This was a marvelous documentary DVD complete with interviews with people from the time period. An outstanding project depicting the desperate days of the great depression and how... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Carson
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting at First, but Too Long
'Riding the Rails' was interesting at first, providing a 'revisit' to days of the Great Depression and a sense of what life riding the rails was really like - often cold, hungry,... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Loyd E. Eskildson
5.0 out of 5 stars Why did teenagers become hoboes? For the same reasons
that adults did. This documentary interviews people from different backgrounds who hoboed in the 1930's while they were still in their teens. Read more
Published 7 months ago by cw of the Black Hills
5.0 out of 5 stars very informative DVD
I love this DVD. Originally we taped it from PBS when it was first aired. My Dad rode the rails for a year or so during the Great Depression and when we showed him the tape of the... Read more
Published 7 months ago by marilyn gentle
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing and moving.
I have used this multiple times with my mid-school students. I never get tired of watching it over and over and I always tear up by the end. An amazing piece of American history.
Published 13 months ago by High School Librarian
5.0 out of 5 stars Ride the Rails.
My husband, who is 83, can relate to this documentary very well. As a 14 year old, he, too, was on his own to save his family from having to support him. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Bonnie
5.0 out of 5 stars Great educational resource
I saw this documentary years ago and bought it when I was prepping to teach Of Mice and Men to my English classes. Read more
Published 14 months ago by hootowldude
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