Last month, we did a Roundtable about Favorite Airplane Movies. With this week’s theatrical release of ‘The Girl on the Train’ in mind, let’s switch our mode of transportation. What are your favorite movies either set on or containing important scenes involving trains?
“Is this a hold-up?”
“It’s a science experiment!”
It’s hard to think of a modern movie that has used a train sequence better than ‘Back to the Future Part III‘, which features Doc Brown and Marty hijacking a locomotive in order to push the DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour so that Marty can get back to 1985.
The scene is beautifully shot by director Robert Zemeckis. The color of the smoke coming out of the train changes as the fire stoking the locomotive gets hotter and the train goes faster.
Let’s not forget the final scene of the film, as Doc says goodbye to Marty in the new time machine he’s built… out of a train, naturally.
After 15 minutes of setup, ‘The Fugitive‘ features a fantastic opening action scene involving a train careening into the side of a bus. For a kid, that scene is wildly intense. Fortunately, the movie continues with greatness from there, but that scene definitely sets the tone. I absolutely loved it. I have two great memories associated with my favorite train scene in a film:
First, there’s nothing normal about growing up in a desert town in Southern California. Along with the nearby maximum security prison and abandoned Air Force base, there are countless meth shacks on the tumbleweed-ridden horizon and unusual things to see and witness around every corner. My personal everyday desert oddity was having train tracks running through the backyard of the house that I grew up in. In the back of my then-tiny mind, there was always a fear of a train derailing back there. As a 12-year-old (going on 13) when ‘The Fugitive’ opened, that movie alone amplified my fear. It was very impactful.
Second, shortly after seeing it several time in theaters, my best buddy and I were flipping around on his family’s big ol’ satellite dish (remember those gigantic ugly things?), when we came across the intro of ‘The Fugitive’ playing. Mind you, it was still in theaters, so we were shocked. Following the train wreck, it faded to black and started over. This 18-minute tease ran non-stop on a channel that advertised pay-per-view movies, which was then showing the filming in advance of the home video release. My buddy and I watched that thing over and over again until we could purchase the VHS copy of the whole film. We watched it so frequently that I can’t even estimate how many times I’ve seen the first 18 minutes of the movie.
Few images in my mind channel mobile opulence to the degree that a luxury line passenger train can. In the history of film, these trains always seem to showcase sophistication alongside both mystery and danger. Of course, when it comes to luxurious sophistication and mysterious danger, very few movies can begin to compete with the James Bond franchise. While the sunny Jamaica of ‘Dr. No’ introduced the big screen Bond in a big way, it was in ‘From Russia with Love‘ that the character was able to explore his First Class way of living. The tense train sequence in the film, which sees Bond’s suspicious and high-bred manner a step too slow more than once, will not be, either in its micro version (dining with the enemy) or its macro version (the smuggling in luxury of the beautiful faux bride) ever effectively duplicated. If I stumble upon it on TV, it’s hard to tear my eyes away.
Rob Reiner’s ‘Stand By Me‘ is one of my favorite movies of all time. This 1986 film based on Stephen King’s novella ‘The Body’ has three main villains: a switchblade-wielding Kiefer Sutherland, a junkyard dog named Chopper, and of course the locomotive that plays chicken with Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and wins – although not by much. Plus, just look at how much grief it causes over the loss of a comb! Sure, technically the train wasn’t on camera yet, but it didn’t have to be. It laid its trap like some kind of evil genius and really did a number on these kids. Yep, smartest choo-choo in film history.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
Trains are a fixture throughout many of Hitchcock’s thrillers: as a steam-powered hideaway among outcasts in ‘Saboteur’, a cacklingly phallic metaphor in ‘North by Northwest’, and the backdrop for a murderous chance encounter in ‘Strangers on a Train’, to name just a few. Never before nor since had one played so critical a role as in 1938’s ‘The Lady Vanishes‘, which just so happens to be about a girl on the train.
The young lady in question is Iris (Margaret Lockwood), who boards a train departing the tiny country of Bandrika. Suffering a nasty blow to the head upon boarding, Iris is helped to her compartment by an eccentric, septuagenarian governess named Miss Froy. She dozes off next to Froy and a handful of strangers, but when she comes to, her new friend is nowhere to be found. The other folks with whom she’s been sharing a compartment insist that there was never any elderly British lady there. No one else on the train, not even several passengers with whom Iris saw Froy speak, will acknowledge her existence. Confused and frustrated, Iris returns to her compartment only to find another lady sitting where Froy once was, and her fellow passengers insist that Madame Kummer had been there all along. Is Iris’ perception skewed from taking a flower pot to the head, or did she wind up buying a one-way ticket to a grand conspiracy?
‘The Lady Vanishes’ was Hitchcock’s last truly great film before making the move to Hollywood. This thriller still holds up marvelously after nearly eight decades, blending together fear, mistrust, claustrophobic suspense and, courtesy of future British comic sensations Charters and Caldicott, a spectacular sense of humor. The briskly paced film speeds along nearly as quickly as the train on which nearly every last moment is set. The central mystery is elaborate and never less than engaging, trying to figure out how all of these disparate puzzle pieces somehow snap together. For those of you unfamiliar with this era of Hitchcock’s work, make it a point to pick up Criterion’s Blu-ray release.
Trains have played an iconic role in movies since the very founding of cinema. Legend (or myth) has it that the Lumière brothers’ silent short ‘Train Pulling into a Station’ sent terrified patrons fleeing from the theater in fear of the locomotive barreling towards them. A few years later, ‘The Great Train Robbery’ used innovative techniques such as cross-cutting and composite editing to create the first American action movie, and one of the first blockbusters.
Buster Keaton’s Civil War comedy ‘The General‘ was actually not much appreciated by either critics or audiences during its release in 1928, but was later re-evaluated and recognized as a masterpiece of physical comedy.
Some honorable mentions: The Hogwarts Express from the ‘Harry Potter’ movies, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’ and the Billy Crystal/Danny DeVito parody ‘Throw Momma from the Train’.
Name some of your favorite movie trains in the Comments below.