Unstoppable: Pennsylvania Dutch Shoo-Fly Pie

Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson
(PG-13, 98 min.)

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear." Mark Twain

This train may be unstoppable, but it is grounded in an earthy reality that invokes an earlier era. Where the clang of heavy metal replaces the ping of our flimsy electronic toys. Rather than images sprinting through space from one virtual reality to another, we have iron cars lumbering along tracks anchored to the soil.

It’s about as different from Wall Street, the place or the film, as you can get. Not the penthouses and postmodern minimalism of modern Manhattan, but the crowded blue-collar cottages of scrappy Scranton, Pennsylvania, surrounded by the rail lines, fuel tanks, and American spirit that keeps our country running.

And there’s something essentially comforting about this world, where the men and women are as tough as the trains, where heroes spring up like the green shoots of wheat coaxed from the heavy clay soil. Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) is one of them. He is the 28 year veteran who has already gotten his early retirement mandate, showing the ropes to Will Colson (Star Trek’s Chris Pine), a green recruit who is barely out of training. What starts out as a routine trip slowly morphs into anything but when the two are informed that they are on a collision course with an unmanned train barreling down the tracks toward them.

The film, inspired by a true story, never pretends to be anything else but high-octane escapism, a perfect popcorn flick to sate our junk food cravings, a break from the late year epicurean delights of Oscar heavyweights crowding in right now.

And this one hits all the right notes. We have just enough background on both men to fill in a textured back story, but not enough to bog us down in melodrama. There is trouble at home for young Will, his blond wife refusing his calls as he watches from a distance while she escorts their son to the yellow school bus. The affable Barnes has no apparent wife, but his two beautiful daughters are more than enough trouble for their doting dad, who is in temporary hot water for forgetting one of their birthdays.

Another plus to the cast is Rosario Dawson, playing the very capable yardmaster Connie Hooper. Excuse the Star Trek reference – I suppose Chris Pine puts my mind to it-- but she has all rebel instincts, and unconventional command style of a young Captain Kirk. And with the good old boys running the show from a safe corporate office, she will need to use all that and more if she wishes to avoid catastrophe.

Another refreshing facet is the slow buildup and direct narrative style. In an age when shaky camera work and convoluted plots burst from the screen in hyperactive frenzy, when 3 D imagery jumps out of the screen to lock us in a semi-nauseated state for an entire screening, this film is a pleasant change. The initial incident seems minor, a lazy decision to postpone connecting the airbrakes when a train is moved out of the way in a crowded yard. Then another bad call on leaving the cab to hand set a faulty switch, and well, you can guess the rest.

The corporate bureaucrat’s decision to publically minimize the risk, to deal with the problem in the cheapest way possible, reminds all of us of 2010's bungled oil spill, when both the oil company and the government let that disaster get completely away from them, promising “sure-fire” fixes that flopped. 

Then there’s the nice interplay between Barnes and Colson, the age old tension between the turgid grays of experience and the bold reds of rash youth. Barnes has been at it so long, he knows the exact length between signals and just how many cars will fit in between. He knows almost without taking time to calculate, whether or not their train, five cars longer than it is supposed to be due to young Colson’s error in hitching up, will fit in the side track they desperately need to keep them out of the unstoppable iron missile of death rattling down the track toward them.

Once a dashing lead whose wide smile and soft eyes melted the hearts of leading ladies on screen as well as those imagining themselves to be in the audience, Denzel Washington is transitioning nicely to more mature character roles. For instance, as Detective Frazier in Spike Lee’s Inside Man his bald pate and puffy face sport some bloat and baggage under the eyes. Yet he is comfortable in his shoes, just as he is as lackluster subway dispatcher Walter Garber in The Taking of Pelham 123. In our film he is a 28 year veteran engineer who accepts his forced retirement and half-pension, who listens to the banter of his spoiled daughters with a disarming smile.

But he can also break the rules and run his engine at full throttle backwards down the track in pursuit of an unstoppable diesel missile careening toward town and its vulnerable citizens. And he still has a smile that can light up the sky.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Let’s celebrate Pennsylvania and the sturdy men and women of that state we see in our film. Just as our heroes, Frank Barnes and Will Colson, had to use whatever they had at their disposal to try to stop the runaway train, so too with the sturdy stock that first settled Pennsylvania. The sizeable group of persecuted religious sects who took up William Penn on his promise of religious tolerance arrived in America around 1730 and settled near Lancaster County.

Using what they had brought with them on the long boat trip – staples that would not perish such as flour, brown sugar, molasses, lard, salt, and spices, they put together this pie that owes its traditions to the British Treacle Tart so ubiquitous in the works of Agatha Christie.

Its name, most conclude, is derived from the local insects’ infatuation with this confection, drawn to the pools of sweet, sticky molasses that formed on the pie as it cooled in the outdoor ovens.

Might I suggest this as a new addition to your Thanksgiving table.

Pennsylvania Dutch Shoo-Fly Pie 


  • 1 (9 inch) pie shell
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 3/4 cup hot water
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup shortening


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

To Make Bottom Layer: In a medium bowl combine molasses, hot water, and baking soda. Stir well. Whisk in beaten egg. Pour mixture into pie shell.

To Make Crumb Topping: In a medium bowl combine flour and brown sugar. Mix well, then cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle on top of molasses layer.

Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Bake an additional 30 minutes.

Recipe Source: allrecipes.com