Cinema Would Be Nothing Without Trains

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This week Tony Scott hurtles a ginormous, out-of-control locomotive across our screens in Unstoppable. Following hot on the tracks of Pelham 1,2,3, it's his second rogue train in succession. It’s also a handy reminder of the railroad’s pre-eminence in movies that’s got us thinking about the rich history of trains in cinema and reflecting on the almost-tenable position that, without trains, films would never have become the cultural success that they are. Don’t believe us? Read on – or rather, choo choo! All aboard!

The train is the greatest dramatis persona in screen history. In fact, without trains there would be no cinema. Yup, it’s a bold statement, but we’re sticking to it. Consider, for instance, Hitchcock without trains. Lose North By Northwest's sleeper journey, in which Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint compare far more than travel cards, and shed the sexual frisson it shovels into the film’s middle act. Where’s man-on-the-lam Richard Hannay without his one-way ticket to the Firth Bridge in The 39 Steps? Stuck at Kings Cross, coffee in hand, while Hun spies bring down the realm, that’s where. Without their shared carriage, Farley Grainger’s flighty playboy and Robert Walker’s oily sociopath would have remained just strangers (pictured). And the lady would have had a much tougher time vanishing on, say, the Number 47 to Catford.

Hitchcock and Scott aren’t the first or only directors to relish the dramatic zip of the railroad. No matter how much audiences thrill to Unstoppable’s loose caboose, it’ll pale compared to the stupefied/terrified reaction that greeted the Lumière brothers’ Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat Station in 1895 (see video). Clocking in at a mere 55 seconds, the sight of a locomotive steaming sedately towards the screen may lack a little dramatic oomph – Scott would have got that mustachioed man with the bag to blow something up – but to its top-hatted and tailed audience it may has well have been Avatar. They’d never seen anything like it before; it’d be a few years before they did again. The motion picture had arrived and it had arrived by train.

Not convinced? Well, what if we pointed out that the train also delivered the first action movie: Edwin S. Porter's seminal and, by 1904 standards, unusually violent heist movie The Great Train Robbery? That mini-epic packed cinematic landmarks into its 12-minute runtime: the first location shoot; the first use of cross-cutting; not to mention the first recorded assault by an actor on a stuffed dummy (see video).

If Porter’s stunt work was a little rough around the edges, it’s safe to say Buster Keaton’s love-letter to the railroad, The General (pictured), upped the ante some. The centrepiece stunt – a cataclysmic locomotive plung into a deep gulch – stands alongside the greatest set-pieces in cinema, its $42,000 budget making Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman the Michael Bays of their day.

Since then trains have regularly provided action movies with propulsion: it's offered capers (River Phoenix evading the bad guys as a young Indy in The Last Crusade (pictured); the DeLorean shunt in Back To The Future III), chaos (Wanted’s mid-carriage shootout and Speed’s knock-out climax), and catastrophe (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts out-of-control ride across Alaska in Runaway Train; Batman Begins and Knowing’s subway smashes; and whatever the heck J.J. Abrams has up his sleeve for Super 8). All by way of the seriously improbably (Mission: Impossible’s chopper vs. Eurostar encounter). And if you’re worn out by all that mayhem, Inception reminds us that they’re a decent place for a snooze too.

War films are also heavily steam-powered. Without trains no-one would have ever made it to – or escaped from – the Second World War, except by walking, parachuting or nicking someone's motorbike. Burt Lancaster did his bit to stop the Nazis making off a loco-load of fine art in The Train (pictured), while heading in the opposite direction was Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard and an away day special’s worth of escaping POWs in Von Ryan’s Express. From The Pianist and Shoah, the route to the death camps is also by train. Those scenes of men, women and children huddled in cattle trucks has offered indelible and heart-wrenching cinema. Try shaking the memory of Schindler’s women peaking through the slats to find themselves behind Auschwitz’s gates.

Trains have been the setting for some of the genre’s most visceral moments. David Lean was responsible for two of them – Lawrence Of Arabia’s epic assault on a Turkish troop carrier (pictured) and Colonel Bogey’s dumbstruck epiphany as the first Japanese train chugs across the River Kwai – and showed a keener eye for a locomotive than a thermos-wielding railway enthusiast. Brief Encounter, possibly the greatest of all romances and definitely the most tragic of all station farewells, is backdropped by whistling expresses, as Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard learn the hard way that there’s never a train strike when you need one.

Of course, in Lean’s day the train was the primary mode of transport. Nowadays, there’s a wealth of travel options for location scouts to pick from. The Dark Knight’s climax took us aboard a Gotham ferry, too many movies to mention hit the road, and the airliner has become a ubiquitous setting for thrillers from Red Eye and Air Force One, to United 97 and Knight And Day. But c’mon, where’s the romance in drinks trolleys and salted peanuts? If you need reminding of how far short jet travel falls of the magic of the railroad, compare Casino Royale’s in-flight bar scene with Sean Connery’s elegant Orient Express jaunt in From Russia With Love (pictured). Okay, so that ended with 007 throttling one of his fellow diners, but you get the drift.

Alternatively, rewatch Flightplan, in which Robert Schwentke sends the plot of The Lady Vanishes soaring into the sky and smack into the law of diminishing returns, and compare with Hitch’s original. Or Sidney Lumet’s gripping take on Murder On The Orient Express (pictured), where Albert Finney’s heavily Brylcreamed Poirot scours the Venice-Simplon’s most opulent rolling stock to find the killer among an equally gilded cast. Is it Bacall? Is it Bergman? Is it Connery (again!)? Could it be the man in 12b with the can of lager and the copy of Practical Angler?

On a train there’s nowhere to hide and, unless you’re Gian Maria in Le Cercle Rouge, nowhere to run. The only way out of a tight spot is by using your smarts, or, if you’re Casey Ryback in Under Seige 2, killing everyone else on board.

It’s time to declare an interest. Henry Hill may have wanted to be a gangster but as a kid I only wanted to be a train driver, so inspired was I by the can-do attitude (and brilliant theme song) of Dumbo’s Casey Jr. – surely the cheeriest engine never voiced by Ringo Starr – and the flexible hours. No childhood is the same without The Railway Children either, even if trainspotters will note with horror that the 0-6-2 N2 class locomotive used to transport the Waterbury family was not actually Edwardian. Zoiks.

Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, with its thrillingly shot bridge scene, taps into the magic of following rails that stretch seemingly to infinity, beckoning you to a more exciting horizon. Riding the rails is a recurrent theme in American cinema, the romance of train travel aided considerably by not having to pass through Birmingham New Street on the way. Sometimes it leads to a richer, wiser future – ask movie director John Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels or Del Griffith in Planes, Trains And Automobiles – and sometimes, Richard Gere discovers in Days Of Heaven and the entire cast learn in Heaven’s Gate, it doesn’t.

In Westerns, the train may be the great motif for progress and civilization, but it’s as likely to pull into town crammed full of nameless gunmen with murderous vendettas as a job-lot of god-fearing settlers. With that progress comes peril, and, if you're in Blazing Saddles, the odd chorus line number. As the iconic opening of Once Upon A Time In The West (see video), 3:10 To Yuma, and High Noon’s thrilling showdown prove, there’s nothing more thrilling in movies than waiting for a train to roll into, or out of, town (see also: The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way).

Nothing except maybe bumping into Marlene Dietrich in the dining carriage (see video). The gravelly-voiced star demonstrates in Shanghai Express that trains are also a great place to pull. Eyes meet, words are exchanged, crosswords completed, and, if you’re Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise, lives changed forever. Trains are the perfect narrative device: several hundred yards of rolling metaphor. Missing one, as Gwyneth Paltrow discovers in Sliding Doors, can be the difference between happiness and heartbreak; while catching one, Some Like It Hot’s dolled-up jazz musicians and Slumdog’s scamps would argue, is hardly plain-sailing either. And they didn’t even have a cobra to deal with, like The Darjeeling Limited's dysfunctional Whitman brothers.

You don’t have to be the Ronnie Biggs to see the criminal, life-enriching potential of the trains either. You can rob them (The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (pictured); Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid; Buster), use them for a devious insurance scam (Double Indemnity), or just plain old push that pesky relative off the side (Throw Momma From The Train). Without them, movie antiheroes would have their hands full just working out what to rip off or who, in the case of Transsiberian’s naïve American tourists, to stitch up.

The Ladykillers would second that. Without the train, they’d still be lugging those phoney musical instruments around Pentonville. In fact, consider for a minute British cinema without trains. Consider it without the blooded-minded vim of The Titchfield Thunderbolt, the hypnotic rhythms of Night Mail, the Fab Four’s jaunt south in A Hard Day’s Night or the station-bound skullduggery of Oh, Mr Porter!. Every one of them is a iron-encased celluloid icon – and we haven’t even mentioned the Hogwart’s Express (pictured). Cinema without the railway is so hard to imagine – where would motion-capture be without Robert Zemeckis’ Polar Express? – we’re shunting this argument into the sidings. You can keep your road trips; we’re going by train. Fingers crossed the conductor doesn’t have dead eyes.