Currently, at the cinema, you can catch the Goonies/E.T./ Close Encounters… throwback ‘Super 8′ (2011) which is not only highly entertaining but also includes one of the most spectacular train crashes I’ve ever seen in a film. In its honour, here is a short guide to all things locomotive in the movies. See what you think and if there are any train-related scenes or movies that you think should have been included let me know by clicking on ‘Leave Comment’ next to the title.
NB: Invariably there is going to be the odd spoiler among these clips. I’ve marked any that I consider to be particularly spoiling (endings or really key plot points) with a star and italics eg. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’*. Please don’t cry if I’ve fucked up your ‘Love Film’ wish list – you have been warned.
1) ‘Super 8’ has perhaps usurped ‘Knowing‘ (2009) for the best CGI train crash, but as recently as 1993’s ‘The Fugitive‘ they were crashing them (or at least life-size models) for real. The crash in ‘The Train‘ (1965) involved three real locomotives, but in all honesty they don’t seem to be travelling that fast. The same can’t be said of those speeding trains clipping other vehicles in ‘Runaway Train‘ (1985) and ‘Unstoppable‘ (2010). Special effects of a different kind can be seen in 1952’s Best Picture Oscar winner ‘The Greatest Show on Earth‘, but even that model shot is nowhere near as bad as that in ‘The Cassandra Crossing‘* (1976) where the train and the weak bridge vie to be more obviously unreal. Other railway bridge collapses can be seen in ‘Around the World in 80 Days‘ (1956), ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai‘* (1957) and ‘Avalanche Express‘ (1979), though not all of the trains come a cropper and none are as devastating as the finale of ‘Silver Streak‘* (1976)
2) ‘Silver Streak’ was heavily influenced by the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Key train sequences in the works of the master of suspense can be found in ‘The 39 Steps‘ (1935), ‘Shadow of a Doubt‘* (1943), ‘Strangers on a Train‘ (1951) and ‘North by Northwest‘ (1959). ‘The Lady Vanishes‘ (1938) takes place almost entirely on a cross-european train.
3) Another figure from film history who took regular rail journeys is James Bond, though given these near-identical sequences in ‘From Russia with Love‘ (1963), ‘Live and Let Die‘ (1973) and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me‘ (1977) you’d think he’d have taken alternative methods of transport. Even as late as ‘GoldenEye‘ (1995), 007 was still having bad experiences on locomotives.
4) The history of trains in films is as old as films themselves. On December 28th, 1895 the first known paying audience came together to watch short films by the Lumiere brothers. The first of these was ‘L’arrivee d’un train a La Ciotat‘. Equally important is ‘The Great Train Robbery‘ (1903) which was the first american movie to have a plot and a close-up. Silent melodramas made plenty of use of railways to endanger damsels in distress, but it was Buster Keaton who showed large steam locomotives could be used to help create something more sophisticated in his greatest production, ‘The General‘ (1926). The western genre in particular made great use of stories of railroad pioneers, though it was a train due to arrive at ‘High Noon‘ (1952) that may be best remembered given the film’s political significance. Other classics with significant train sequences include David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter‘ (1945), Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like it Hot‘ (1959) and ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt‘ (1953) from Britain’s famous Ealing Studios. Wallace and Gromit were involved in one of the most tense train chases in animated cinema in ‘The Wrong Trousers‘* (1993) and the relationship between railways and movie-making was taken to new heights with Shane Meadows’ ‘Somers Town‘ (2008).
5) Trains have been used as the setting for musical numbers on a number of occasions. ‘42nd Street‘ (1933) and ‘The Music Man‘ (1962) are two notable examples and it was on board the circus train in ‘At the Circus‘ (1939) where Groucho Marx sung of ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’. The trains in ‘Dumbo‘ (1941) and ‘The Harvey Girls‘ (1946) even have songs sung about them. However, my favourite music to accompany a cinematic train comes in the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express‘.
6) As we’ve seen, some great films have featured rail travel for all sorts of reasons, but the best film ever to feature a train might just be this little gem from 1936. With music by Benjamin Britten and poetry by W.H. Auden, I give you ‘Night Mail‘.