Murder on the Orient express, directed by and starring Kenneth Brannagh, is about to hit the cinemas and it looks set to be pretty great. Trains have a long history with movies–in fact, one of the first movies to be widely screened was of a train pulling into a station. L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was filmed by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895 and the reports, perhaps exaggerated, were that people fled the theatre in terror, thinking that the train was about to crash into them. (A more plausible account is that the Lumiere Brothers also developed a rudimentary but very effective form of 3D which made people think that they were watching a scene happening outside of the building.)
And so, in celebration of, what, 122 years of trains in movies, here are my top five favourite train movies:
1. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Alfred Hitchcock was evidently fond of trains since he set so many of dramatic turns on them. North By Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt, and, or course, Strangers on a Train, all have pivotal scenes set on trains. However, The Lady Vanishes makes the list because the bulk of the action takes place on the train itself.
It’s a great set-up–a woman goes to sleep on a train and then wakes up to find that the person she has been sharing a carriage with is gone, and not only that, but no one else on the train remembers ever having seen her at all. It’s a plot that was cribbed for Flightplan (2005) starring Jodie Foster. And as with most Hitchcock movies, it is not long before spies and intrigue abound. To say any more would be to spoil it, but if you have not seen it I recommend that you do
2. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
The Darjeeling Limited is often placed at the bottom of people’s favourite Wes Anderson films (if they even have a favourite). It’s nearly at the top of my list, after Rushmore (1998). After the first couple through I realised that I was watching it wrong. I had thought, as others insisted, that it was a movie about brothers and family dysfunction.
At least, not for me. Because, those elements are certainly there, but none of what the brothers went through, or how they interact with each other, are anything that resonates with me and my fraternal relations. But what I can relate to, and this is where all of the movie’s conflict stems from, is when life gets derailed and you’re left searching for some meaning or purpose when you’ve been thrown completely off course. The three Whitman brothers are, at one point, thrown off the titular train and they never get back on again. It is then revealed that the brothers never attended their father’s funeral, and the reason that one of them has for dragging them to India is to find their mother who abandoned them–and she abandons them again. It’s about dealing with the fact in life that sometimes there just isn’t any meaning or resolution to tragic events, but that life continues on anyway. It’s only when the brothers attend an Indian funeral that they are given the tools necessary to mourn and let go of the past. But even then, as is said, there is still a lot of healing to do.
3. Busanhaeng/Train to Busan (2016)
Showing on Netflix right now, this is a real gem of a film. Made in South Korea last year, this is not only a good train movie, but one of the best zombie movies as well, and I defy you to disagree with me. As with all of the best zombie movies, this story is all about the characters, with some astute social commentary thrown in. Previously annoying characters are shown to have worth and integrity, and the survival of all is compromised by the entitled few. With just a few deft strokes of the scriptwriter’s pen, you are never in doubt to a character’s motivations, and everyone is sympathetic, even when they are deliberately sabotaging others.
Every ounce of tension is squeezed out of the premise as the movie rockets to its conclusion as fast as the bullet train it centres around. The set pieces are stunning and suspenseful. Even if you feel that you have burned out on zombies, I encourage you to pull together enough stamina to see this one. It doesn’t disappoint.
4. Snowpiercer (2013)
There was a lot of controversy around when it was released. For a start, it didn’t get a very wide release, even considering that it starred the current Captain America, Chris Evans. Then when people saw that its overt themes were about workers overthrowing lazy oppressors who did nothing but live the high life on the backs of the servant class, accusations were made that “The Rich” buried this movie deliberately in order to keep it away from the 99%.
Obviously the rich have a better way of not letting us see movies and that is to not make them in the first place. But for all of this, it is true that this movie should be more in the public consciousness than it is. It wears its class-struggle metaphor right there on its sleeve, definitely leaning in on its fantastical premise: a train carrying the last survivors of earth rides an endless circuit through the frozen world, and after decades of exploitation, the people who shed sweat, blood, and tears, aren’t going to stand by and have their children stolen. Amid rumours that there are no more bullets left in the guards guns, the engine workers attempt a coup d’etat.
Beautifully directed, superbly acted, and with several genuinely shocking revelations, this is definitely one to track down.
5. The General (1926)
I’m a huge fan of silent movies and so my list can’t be complete without The General on it. In a large part conceived by Buster Keaton, it is also inspired by true events. It’s the story of a man who steals a train during the American Civil War in order to get back to his sweetheart. This film was rather large budget for its time (most say $750,000) and it only did middling well ($500,000 domestic). However, Keaton was always innovative, not just in his own stunts, but also in what he committed to film. This picture has the honour of containing the most expensive shot in the silent movie era: they actually drove an actual train off of an actual bridge and into an actual riverbed for the movie’s climax.
This, however, is probably not the most famous scene. The scene where Keaton removes railway ties from the train tracks while the train is in motion, in one continuous shot is in just about all of the top 100 greatest scenes clip shows. But the whole movie is a corker, if you go in for that sort of thing. I understand that not everyone can kick back and enjoy a silent movie, but if you were to try one, this wouldn’t be the worst to begin with.