Ever since they started to make films for entertainment, trains have been a popular inclusion. Brief research has shown me that there are 100 or more films with the bulk of the action taking place on a train, and hundreds more where a train features as part of the story. Perhaps the most well-known of these are the various film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novel, ‘Murder On The Orient Express’, so I will not be mentioning that one here.
But I will be featuring some of the others I have seen, and how having characters trapped in the relative confines of a moving train can add tension and mystery, as well as a list of suspects for anything that happens during the journey.
Not all films featuring trains are mysteries though. Some are comedies, others are set during wars, and more recent ‘train films’ have involved futuristic scenarios, and even zombie invasions.
The Lady Vanishes. (1938)
Set in the pre-war European tensions of 1938, this film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and stars Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, alongside May Whitty, as ‘the lady who vanishes’. Travelling through a fictional country in Europe on a train, a young woman realises that her elderly travelling companion has vanished. She enlists the help of a young musicologist to search for the old lady, and what follows is a hugely enjoyable ‘whodunnit’ with drama and comedy combined. Despite being filmed at studios in London, causing the film to feel very ‘set-bound’ at times, that in no way spoils the enjoyment of a great film that got Hitchcock noticed by Hollywood.
The Train. (1964)
This is a WW2 French Resistance thriller, concerning Nazi plans to remove precious artworks from France to Germany, set in August 1944, and based on real events. Burt Lancaster stars as railway inspector Labiche, and gives his usual square-jawed and reliable performance. Other cast members include the excellent Paul Scofield as a German Colonel, and Jeanne Moreau as a hotel owner. Determined to sabotage the train to stop the art being stolen, Labiche uses his Resistance contacts and fellow railway workers to divert the train, much to the annoyance of the Germans. When this delaying tactic is discovered, he eventually manages to derail the train, saving the art for France.
This film has authenticity, and a lot of tension throughout. A convincing cast and a real feel of the period sets it apart too.
Von Ryan’s Express. (1965)
This is a POW escape film, set during WW2. British and American prisoners of war are due to be moved from a camp in Italy, following the Italian surrender. But a plan is hatched to take over the train, and divert it to Switzerland, a neutral country. Ryan is played by Frank Sinatra, who to be honest looks more like a singer than an Air Force officer. British interests are played by Trevor Howard, and John Leyton. Managing to overpower the German guards, the POWs wear their uniforms, and as the train travels through Italy, they work out a way to get the track switched for their train. On the way to Switzerland, they realise a second train is following them, and it becomes a race against time. At the border, it is decided that some men will get off the train and attack the German SS troops about to catch them. This sacrifice ensures the remainder will escape.
Like the previous film, this also manages to keep the tension high, and the viewer is never really sure if the POWs will pull off the escape. Although many of the characters are stereotypes, they all take it seriously, and that ensures it remains exciting right until the end.
Siver Streak. (1976)
This comedy thriller was the first pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, along with a great cast including Ned Beatty and Jill Clayburgh. The setting is the train journey from Los Angeles to Chicago on a train named The Silver Streak. This film has a lot going for it. A snappy script, mistaken identity, wrong suspects, and a great finale on board the train that has now become a runaway, with nobody driving it. To say much more would spoil the fun, but if you have never seen this often madcap comedy, you will not be disappointed.
More up to date, with a post-apocalyptic story based on a graphic novel that has an element of Steampunk added too. The only people left on Earth after a climate change catastrophe all live on a train that never stops, the Snowpiercer of the title. The train is self-powered by an ingenious device, and makes a constant loop in the wintry conditions that now dominate the planet. Societal and class structures are maintained, with working people living in poor conditions at the back, and the wealthy enjoying luxury at the front. Eventually, the low class passengers stage a revolt, working their way through the train and fighting the guards trying to stop them.
The cast list is impressive. John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and Chris Evans as the leader of the revolutionaries. With some scenes filmed in specially constructed train carriages, location filming in snowy wastes, and elements of CGI that are not really intrusive, this is a good sci-fi action-adventure that doesn’t try to leave us with too many ends untied.
Train To Busan. (2016)
Last but not least, for my money the best zombie-horror film made so far, and set on a train where nobody can escape the zombies! Made in South Korea, the cast list will not mean much to anyone, but this is a first-rate action-horror, with a relentless pace, incredible set-pieces, and breathtaking action from the start. The story is simple enough, concerning travellers taking a train from Seoul to Busan just as a zombie outbreak begins in the capital. One zombie manages to get on board and infect someone else, and so on. Those not affected have to fight to survive, as the train speeds through the countryside. So much better than it souunds, this film really is outstandingly good.
There you have it. Six examples of films where the train is as much the star as any of the actors. There are many more similar films to discover, but I hope you will take my recommendations and watch these when you can.