Posted by Susan Doll on November 29, 2010
Horses, trains, planes, trucks, cars, and everything in between. . . Americans are a mobile people always on the go. And, we value speed, power, movement, action, endurance—qualities that will get us where we want to go, even if we don’t know what to do when we get there. Small wonder we mythologize and romanticize vehicles and modes of transportation in our popular culture, especially in the movies. The exception may be air travel. After a decade of airport security checks, pat-downs, and wand probes, combined with the airlines’ overall disdain for their customers, cinematic adventures in airplanes have a negative connotation. They are generally allegories for terrorism (Snakes on a Plane), symbols of purgatory (The Langoliers), or metaphors for various states of mental breakdown (Flightplan).
Though trains have fallen out of favor as the preferred mode of cross-country travel, and the long-haul trucking industry has hijacked—pardon the pun—much business from the railroads, trains still make a potent subject matter for the movies. Over the holiday weekend, I watched Unstoppable on the big screen in a packed theater, where most members in the audience thoroughly enjoyed the tense scenes of near misses and close calls. The film prompted me to recall other movies in which trains are the primary setting or central focus of the narrative because I thought it would make a fun topic for today’s post. Alas, after poking around on the Web to see how Unstoppable fared with reviewers, I discovered this was not an original thought on my part. Apparently, the film inspired other bloggers to list movies about trains. Oh, well, at least my list goes back to the very beginning of cinema history.
In no particular order, this is my list of favorite films in which most of the story is set on a train or involves a train. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list, and it does not include movies with only one key sequence on a train (i.e. Palm Beach Story). Feel free to add a comment with your own favorites and why they stand out for you.
1. Unstoppable stars Denzel Washington in his sixth film with action auteur Tony Scott, a Hollywood veteran who prefers practical and mechanical effects to CGI. Set in northeastern Pennsylvania, the story involves a runaway train barreling toward highly populated Scranton and its curved track, where it will surely derail. Washington plays the experienced railroader breaking in a new engineer, played by Chris Pine. The pair decides to chase after the runaway, #777, with plans to stop it.
Like most genre films, the plot is of little real interest; instead, star turns in familiar roles, colorful character actors, old-fashioned craftsmanship, and subtext are much more important. When a star of Washington’s caliber takes on a role in a genre film, his image and presence fill in the dimensions of his character. Washington does more with a simple line of dialogue in Unstoppable than most actors in Oscar-bait dramas do with lengthy monologues. Director Tony Scott manages to create both bursts of tension and unrelenting suspense in the same film. On-going suspense is produced the old-fashioned way; it builds from the premise and increases as the train gains momentum and the railroad runs out of options for stopping it. Nerve-wracking tension is built up and then released in sequences where #777 nearly collides with other trains or where efforts to stop #777 fail, making the viewing experience something of a roller-coaster ride. To amplify the tension in these sequences, Scott fills the screen with movement, creating a nervous energy. Helicopters dart through the sky, trucks race along the railroad tracks, horses rear up, and crowds run chaotically while cameras track with the movement, circle key characters, and then zoom in on someone’s worried expression. Scott’s strategy to build an underlying suspense while manipulating the viewer through creation and release of tension works perfectly because the editing in Unstoppable is logical and fluid—a classical approach in lieu of the hyper-montage style that dominates action films today. Classic editing builds suspense; montage sacrifices it for the sake of an immediate rush.
Washington, Pine, Rosario Dawson, and character actor Lew Temple play working class characters who are truly heroic. They make a sacrifice for the greater good because it is the right thing to do. A recent post by fellow Morlock davidkalat lamented the loss of the movie hero, who has been replaced by cynical antiheroes, comic-book fantasy figures, and bratty geeks. This film is a throwback to heroic protagonists, tightly crafted linear narratives, happy endings, and old-school craftsmanship, and it makes virtues of all these Hollywood movie conventions, proving that they are timeless.
2. In the silent comedy The General (1927), Buster Keaton uses a train as a comic prop. Part of Keaton’s comic shtick was the large scale of his gags, which often made use of moving vehicles, falling houses, boats, etc. In this Civil War story, Keaton plays an engineer loyal to the South who steals a locomotive called “the General” from the Yankees. Though based on a real historical event, the story is merely a vehicle for Keaton to orchestrate physical stunts and gags using a moving train. He runs on top of it, hops in and out of the engine car, rides on the cowcatcher, and climbs between cars with such ease that he makes it look like anyone could do it. Every part of the train is potential fodder for a joke, as when the Yankees toss railroad ties onto the tracks to deter Keaton and the General. Keaton hops off his train, runs ahead to try to move the tie, and then the cowcatcher catches him from behind. He lies prone on the cowcatcher, still holding the heavy tie, which he then uses to slam into the next tie, knocking them both out of the way.
3. Trains make a good setting for mysteries because the close confines restrict movement, and the mystery that unfolds forces interaction among characters who would normally never even speak to each other. The Lady Vanishes (1938) is one of Hitchcock’s experiments in limited settings, which also included Rear Window, Rope, and Lifeboat. In The Lady Vanishes, several passengers board a train in Bandrika, including Iris, played by Margaret Lockwood, and an elderly lady named Miss Froy, played by Dame May Whitty. Miss Froy, who had been a governess most of her life, seems harmless enough, but when Iris loses consciousness, Miss Froy disappears. Iris reawakens, but the other passengers claim that Miss Froy never existed. Hitchcock creates tension by exploiting the limited setting; after all, there are only so many places to hide a person on a moving train.
4. Some trains need no mythologizing because they come complete with their own legend, such as the exotic and alluring Orient Express. An international rail service begun in 1883, the Orient Express originally ran between Paris and Istanbul, the latter city giving the train the atmosphere of intrigue and the former an aura of luxury. Murder on the Orient Express (1974), based on Agatha Christie’s novel, offered an all-star cast chewing the scenery in a story that is perfectly encapsulated by the title. In the plot, the motive behind the murder is based on the Lindbergh kidnapping, adding a touch of history mixed with folklore to the story. The biggest stars of the day—from Ingrid Bergman to Sean Connery to Lauren Bacall—elevate the material with old-fashioned glamour. The famous train provides an atmosphere of exoticism and Old-World opulence that made me vow to ride the Orient Express one day just for the adventure. Unfortunately, I missed my chance, because the last version of the Orient Express was shut down last year.
5. Over 115 years ago, when movies were 30-second, silent flickers with no editing, no story, and no actors, Train Pulling into the Station (1895) was as exciting to viewers as Unstoppable is for crowds in 2010. Made by Auguste and Louis Lumiere in Paris, Train Pulling into the Station (sometimes known as Train Arriving at the Station) is exactly what the title suggests—a single shot of a train pulling into a station from the perspective of someone standing on the platform facing the train as it moves toward them. It lasts about 45 seconds. This was the last film shown one December evening in 1895 when the Lumieres projected ten of their flickers in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris, which was the first public showing of projected motion pictures anywhere. Audiences had never seen moving pictures before, and when Train Pulling into the Station came on the screen, patrons ran screaming out of the basement of the Grand Café and into the night, thinking that a train was coming out of the wall to mow them down. At least, that is what the Paris newspapers claimed the next day, though perhaps the story was embellished by the reporter or by the Lumieres. The story behind the premiere of Train Pulling into the Station makes a good beginning for the cinema’s relationship with the power, speed, and dynamism of trains.
6. I can’t mention Train Pulling into the Station without listing The Great Train Robbery (1903), another pioneering film important to the history of cinema. Famed for its early use of certain editing techniques, this one-reeler has also been dubbed the first western. Filmmaker Edwin S. Porter, who was accustomed to shooting scenes of everyday life for the Edison Company, liked to peruse the newspapers for ideas. Legend has it that an article about a train robbery by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gave Porter the idea for the film. Trains would become important iconography in westerns, symbolizing the coming of civilization to the Wild West—and the relentless inevitability of it.
7. Along the lines of Unstoppable, Runaway Train (1985) tells the story of two escaped convicts and a female railway worker trapped on a train without brakes or an engineer. The speed and relentless power of the train is captured in wide shots of the long black train speeding through the snowy white Alaskan landscape, an image I can clearly recall though I have not seen the movie in many years. For the convicts, played by Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, the train is the vehicle of freedom, but for the woman, played by Rebecca DeMornay, it means entrapment. The film features Hollywood actors in a film directed by Russian Andrei Konchalovsky who based it on a screenplay by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. The cast and crew make Runaway Train sound like an international production, but the film—released during the waning days of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe—really belongs to Konchalovsky. He began his career as a filmmaker in Russia, where some of his films were shelved by the Communist Party. Jon Voight’s character, Manny, a long-time inmate of a maximum security prison falling apart because of the machinations of a dictatorial warden, sacrifices everything for freedom—an attitude Konchalovsky could clearly relate to.
8. Like thrillers and mysteries, horror films benefit from a limited setting because victims can be picked off one by one by the monster, and each character fears they could be next. Horror Express (1972) stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in a horror movie NOT produced by Hammer, and yet it is my favorite pairing of the two icons of the genre. Lee plays an anthropologist who has discovered a frozen monster in the wasteland of Manchuria, which could be the Missing Link. He brings the creature back to Europe aboard the Trans-Siberian Express packed in a big crate. Cushing is Dr. Wells, who is also on board to banter with Lee. Along the way, the monster thaws out and starts to kill the passengers one by one, sucking out part of their brains. As if the pairing of Cushing and Lee is not enough, the film costars Telly Savalas as a vigorous Russian military officer, Captain Kazan, given to spouting colorful lines: “. . . the devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack.”
9. Night Mail (1936), a documentary produced in England by John Grierson’s famed GPO Unit, may seem an odd choice on a list of movies in which trains are used as storytelling devices or metaphors. But, in the hands of Grierson’s unit, this documentary about the mail train between London and Scotland rises to the level of poetry. Grierson coined the term “documentary,” and his definition might surprise today’s audiences: A documentary is the creative treatment of actuality. Brief, but it suggests that docs need not be a mode for truth-telling or objectivity, as many assume. GPO Unit member Harry Watt directed the film under Grierson’s tutelage, while W.H. Auden wrote the poetic narration that went with it. Like Unstoppable, Night Mail celebrates the working man who makes sacrifices—in this case, a good night’s sleep and the warm embrace of family—to ensure that the mail is delivered. The film is as much about the loneliness of those who endure—and even embrace—such an existence as it is about the process of mail delivery.
10. A few years back, I thought Clint Eastwood’s daughter, Allison, was going to follow in her father’s footsteps as a director, but to date she has directed only one movie, a poignant indie drama titled Rails & Ties (2007). Kevin Bacon, an underrated actor with great range, plays an engineer who loves his job until his train hits a car stopped on the tracks, killing a woman. Not only is he suspended from his job but he is grieving over news that his wife has terminal cancer. The dead woman’s son escapes from the hellish foster home he was placed in and tracks down the engineer. The train becomes the bond that ties them together. I liked the melancholy tone of this film, and the underplaying by the actors.
Bacon is also the star of another indie film about trains called End of the Line. In this one, the employees of a small railway are shattered when their line is closed. They steal a locomotive and take it to corporate headquarters to confront the president. I liked the sentiment of the film, but it’s not as good as the other s on this list.
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