It was late December, in 1895. A group of people watched a train, on screen. The train was seen coming at a long distance. Gradually, the train arrives in the platform, making the people watching it on-screen to comprehend with terror, since they thought the train might burst out of the screen. This celebrated fifty second silent film marked the glorious journey of cinema. Ever since then, the filmmakers have ceaselessly used train imagery for a variety of purposes. Trains – an exalting symbol of modern times – have provided stories of romance, whodunit mysteries and action. Who could forget the tension mounting around the arrival of a train in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in West” or the famous, darkly comic train robbery scene in “The Wild Bunch”? Or Edwin S. Porter's eleven minute The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of our foremost narrative film. This list I have compiled consists of some good and great movies, whose plot revolves around a train. These films, set in a train, offer a host of amusing possibilities. I may have missed out some good movies. If so, please mention it in the comments section.
Korean auteur’s Bong Joon-Ho’s adaptation of the French Graphic novel “La Transperceneige” is high-end sci-fi, where the survivors of a self-inflicted ice age are cramped inside a state-of-the-art luxury train. The crowded vessel functions as an elaborate microcosm of our society itself complete with all the top-down class distinctions, rendered from tip to tail. Though there are some logical and continuity errors, the direction is expertly done, making us contemplate man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, and whether human race is worth trying to save at all.
Source Code (2011)
Duncan Jones’ small-scale mind-bender has Jake Gyllenhaal playing a decorated Capt. Colter Stevens, whose last mission was in Afghanistan. To his surprise, he wakes up in a commuter train, bound for Chicago. Bewildered Stevens, tries to gauge the situation by chatting with the passengers. Later, he finds out that he must replay eight minutes of time in order to find the identity of the bomber. The bomb couldn’t be defused in any of the scenarios, and like the train on the tracks, he must continue to reach the final destination.
Tony Scott’s pure thrill ride, “Unstoppable” has the best high-octane train sequences, which are shot without reverting to computer-generated trickery. Inspired from a real-life incident, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine play the conductor and engineer of a locomotive, who are on a mission to stop a runaway train, travelling at 80 miles per hour. Scott’s hyper-kinetic visual style is as relentless as the train itself, giving us an exhilarating ride. The big challenge is to give the impression that this was a train, running at a much faster rate than what they are capturing in real life.
“Tickets” united three auteurs of modern cinema – Abbas Kiarostami, Ermanno Olmi and Ken Loach – for three different narratives set in the reality of one train heading south from Vienna to Rome. There is not a strong narrative force and the segments are wildly uneven, but the myriad situations that one may observe when travelling by train is what stitch the stories loosely together. The Train is portrayed as a metaphor for the self-discovery of these passengers. The film takes about class division and various other issues, but never wedges it into our head like in a message movie.
Train of Life (1998)
Radu Mihaileanu's meandering comic train journey uses Holocaust as the backdrop and subjected to the same sort of criticism that was leveled at “Life is Beautiful”, for trivializing a horrific period in recent history. But, the director goes to great pains to emphasize the tragedy of the Holocaust, although he does so in a somewhat unconventional manner. The film is set in European village, where the people horrible rumors about trains to death camps. And so, the town's Jewish community develops an elaborate plan to escape to Russia in a dilapidated train they've made over to look like a concentration camp transport.
Lars Von Trier’s final segment of the “Europa” trilogy opens by the clickety-clack of train moving along the rail-road tracks and a somber narration by faceless voice. The convoluted story’s protagonist is a young, naïve American comes to Europe in the aftermath of World War II, and his uncle finds him a job as a train conductor on the Zentropa line. The various characters that drift inside the train could be taken as a metaphor for the post-war Germany hurtling toward an unknown future. He transforms the train journey into some form of historical abstraction.
Runaway Train (1985)
Andrei Konchalovsky's is one of the action genre movie (original screenplay devised by the Japenese master, Akira Kurosawa) that have achieved a level of tautness without compromising the characterization and intelligence of the plot. The story follows two escaped cons, who become the accidental passengers on a four-engine work train that run out of control through the Alaskan wilderness. Through the characters we see a microcosm of humanity at its most base and noble. For a movie, that was released nearly three decades before, “Runaway Train” has excellent visceral thrills, some of which can’t be attained even in modern CG action fantasies.
Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)
Joseph Sargent’s smart thriller belongs to the urban paranoia movies of the 1970’s. The simplest plot brings up a group of criminals, who take a New York subway train hostage and make a brutal demand. Like Gene Hackman in “The French Connection” (1971), this urban thriller has Walter Matthau as the protagonist, who first slumps and later blends in. The film catches the frantic mood of NYC, which is said to be the most crime-ridden subway system in the world. Despite a facile screenplay, ‘Pelham’ still remains fascinating.
Murder on Orient Express (1974)
Based on Agatha’s Christie 1934 novel, this Sidney Lumet production is bestowed with a knockout performance from Albert Finney as Hercules Poirot. Martin Balsam, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Sean Connery – the cast is full of such great names. A ruthless American millionaire is mysteriously murdered inside the ‘Orient Express.’ As it takes time to dig the train out of a huge Balkan snowdrift, level headed detective puts everyone under the scanner to solve the mystery. Amidst repeated cuts to exterior train shots, Poirot follows clue by clue to figure out the intellectual riddle.
The Train (1965)
John Frankenheimer’s black-and-white spy thriller is set during the last days of World War II and pays a fitting homage to the French resistance. Burt Lancaster plays the central role of Station master, who plots to hold up a French art train, which has become bigger than the war for a fanatic German colonel. The thrilling scenario of riding the train through the marshaling yards, amidst the air-raid and the ingenious episode of changing the names of station-boards are all finely wrought. Although, the movie has aged fifty, the bustling trains and bang up special effects, makes it more entertaining watch, even for today’s standards.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Hitchcock’s morally ambiguous masterpiece puts a charming tennis player Guy Haines and psychotic Bruno Walker in a train. Their chance meeting and the following conversation makes Bruno propose to Haines that he will dispose of Guy’s unfaithful; in return, Guy must finish off Bruno’s old meddling father. Although the train sequences are very few, Hitchcock plays on the fear of trains as a foreboding means of transportation. Despite the luxuriousness inside a coach, he shows that the passengers are trapped in an unfamiliar location with others among which there may be ruthless human beings.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Hitchcock’s entertaining pre-USA production brings up Britain's dilemma in the build-up to the impending war with Germany. The story is about the disappearance of seemingly harmless Miss Froy, who is seen travelling in a transcontinental train by Miss Iris. Iris encounters a group of other passengers, who were all sure that there was no Miss Froy. She enlists fellow English passengers to figure out the sinister plans behind an old lady’s disappearance. Through the characters aboard a central European train, Hitchcock combines humor with a genuine sense of menace. The master of confined spaces also terrifically uses the train's compartments and corridors to generate suspense.
The General (1926)
Slapstick genius Buster Keaton’s hilarious civil war comedy incorporates the best train-based acrobatics in movies (even for today’s standards). The tragicomic Keaton plays a train engineer, whose beloved train engine gets stolen by Union spies. He bravely and uproariously pursues ii single-handedly, going straight into the enemy lines. The marvelous scenes, where Buster dodges the Union men’s attempt to derail him are cleverly filmed. He saves the best for the last – the climatic single shot, where the soldiers take up the train on a burning bridge. It’s not just one of the best locomotive movies; it’s also one of the greatest comedies ever produced.
Other Notable Films: Shanghai Express (1932), Transsiberean (2008), Von Ryan’s Express (1968), The First Great Train Robbery (1979), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953).