The Greatest Train Movies Ever
Before "Snowpiercer" opens, a ticket for the best films on track
By Richard Whittaker, 10:00AM, Fri. Jun. 20
Austin may be a long way away from getting much of a rail system, but at least this weekend we'll be getting a sneak cinematic peak at the joys of life on the rails.
This weekend, the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow presents a very special screening of upcoming railroad fantasy Snowpiercer. The post-apocalyptic political allegory from Bong Joon-ho stars Chris Evans (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Tilda Swinton (most recently seen vamping it up in Only Lovers Left Alive) engaging in futuristic class war on a train carrying the last of humanity. Joon-ho will be in attendance as the audience takes Austin's own little locomotive that could, the Hill Country Flyer, up to Burnet for the film and a Q&A (more details on our special screenings page.)
Railway and cinema go hand-in-hand. They both involved looking at the schedule: They both required a ticket; And you never know who you'll be sat next to when the motor starts turning. That's why there's always been a sub-genre of railway movies: The sound of a stream engine, the roar of diesel or hum of an electric track have their own romance, but add the fact that this was a place where plutocrats and commoners would rub shoulders, and it's a recipe for drama and comedy.
So which are the greatest track-bound movie treats of all time? Here's quick guide to some of the best destinations that take the iron horse to drama. And, no, Strangers on a Train doesn't count, because the fact that Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) meet on a train doesn't really affect the story much. It could have been a pie shop.
The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)
Ealing Studios specialized in charming British quirky eccentrics, and the hilariously named (yes you can laugh( The Titfield Thunderbolt. But under the delights of cream teas, cricket and narrow gauge lines through the English countryside, there's actually a sharp little satire. The road lobby was successfully arguing against the need for rural rail lines (sound familiar, Austin?), even though many villages were dependent on public transport for their day-to-day transportation needs.
Union Pacific (1939)
Not a train movie per se, but undoubtedly a movie about railways. Cecil B. DeMille pitted Joel McCrae and Barbara Stanwick against the rigors of Western expansion from the behind the stream cloud of an engine. The recipient of the first ever Palme D'Or at Cannes, it's naturally paired with John Ford's Stagecoach, released that same year, and is a powerful reminder that the Wild West was just as much about the industrial revolution as it was the rugged individualist.
Runaway Train (1985)
Talk about actual strangers on a train: This frozen thriller brings together the man behind the lens on Tango & Cash (Russian emigre and director Andrei Konchalovsky) and the master of The Seven Samurai (scripter Akira Kurosawa) with two of the all-time great cinematic loose cannons, Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. Two convicts find themselves on a train in remote Alaska, barreling through the snow drifts in a battle of untrammeled masculine aggression and vying nihilism. Like the car scenes in True Detective with more prison ink and face-punching.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Locomotives are the ultimate location for a sealed bottle drama. Agatha Christie realized this when she wrote Murder on the Orient Express in 1934, and somewhat surprisingly it took four decades for a cinematic adaptation. An all-star cast, including Sean Connery, Lauren Baccall, John Gielgud, Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins, all quails before the twitching mustache of Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, the Belgian private detective who takes on the challenge of solving a seemingly impossible murder.
Night Mail (1936)
Steam trains and W.H. Auden: Can there be anything more definitionally British? The GPO Film Unit, the media section of the UK General Post Office, hired the great poet to narrate a documentary about the mail train running from London to Edinburgh. Clearly but charmingly staged, it's a monument to a time when the toils and troubles of the working class were actually celebrated and lauded, rather than demeaned and ignored. Auden's closing poem ("This is the night mail, crossing the border/Bringing the check and the postal order/Letters for the rich, letters for the poor/The shop at the corner, and the girl next door"), throbbing and thrumming with the rhythm of the tracks, is one of the masterworks of industrial poetry.
Source Code (2011)
Proving that trains still role on into the 21st century, Duncan Jones followed up astronomical isolation tale Moon with this Groundhog-ian techno-thriller about a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) reliving the same train crash over and over again. After it played at SXSW 2011, Marc Savlov called it a film in which "lies a warm and human heart, predestined for doom but beating up a storm despite itself."
Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer Rolling Road Show sneak preview screening, June 21 (more info on our special screenings page) The film opens in Austin next week. Watch for our review and an interview with the director.