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What is it about trains in movies?

Publicity still from Trainspotting

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A festival in France is celebrating the role of railways in the world of the silver screen, but why are there so many trains in the movies we watch?

Once upon a time an audience was very surprised to see a train in a film.

Brief Encounter
Brief Encounter
Some Like It Hot
Sliding Doors
North by Northwest
Before Sunrise

The film in question was one of the first ever made by the pioneer of cinema, Louis Lumiere, and it was entitled L'Arrivee d'un train a La Ciotat. Less than a minute long, it generated excitement among the first audiences as the train - it appeared - drew right up to those watching.

There are even stories - thought apocryphal by many - that many in the first audience panicked and fled the cinema.

But whatever the truth there is no doubt it helped cast an enduring theme in cinema, the use of trains and railway stations as locations, backdrops and dramatic devices. It is perhaps not surprising considering the timing of the invention of cinema.

"When the movie industry started in the last couple of years of the 19th Century, railways were still a fairly recent invention", says Glyn Horton, author of Horton's Guide to Britain's Railways in Feature Film.

"The Victorians were totally fascinated by the railways - they had overcome their initial fears. They were seen as fast and exciting."

Bridge on the River Kwai
Bridge on the River Kwai
Lawrence of Arabia
Titfield Thunderbolt
Runaway Train
The General

When you think about trains and the movies, it is easy to first think of romance and glamour.

Not too long ago Virgin Trains cannibalised two great train-heavy movies, North by Northwest and Some Like It Hot, for an advert.

A journey on the famous and luxurious Twentieth Century, from New York to Chicago, plays a major part in North by Northwest. Pursued advertising man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) strikes up an instant rapport with Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint, in the plush dining car of the train.

The movie features a celluloid railway staple, the stopping of a train by authorities looking for a fugitive.

And indeed, it is this idea of an extremely compact space used to generate dramatic tension that appeals to film-makers. In the days of the individual compartment, this tension was amplified even further.

"There is a fascination with sequences on train carriages," says Tony Earnshaw, film historian and artistic director at the National Media Museum. "It's about isolation, placing your characters within this enclosed space where they can't go anywhere."

Murder on the Orient Express
Many a murder mystery involved a train journey or two

One of the classic train fights took advantage of rail claustrophobia, when James Bond fought Red Grant in From Russia With Love.

"It is one of the most realistic, brutal fights in Bond," says Mr Earnshaw. "There is nowhere for them to go."

And even an ordinary compartment with a sliding glass door offered dramatic possibilities, to whit, someone could be murdered in such a compartment as long as you were quick about it and the conductor didn't walk past at the wrong moment.

If you go back to the greats of detective fiction, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, murders on trains, murderers escaping on trains and knowledge of timetables and even obscure branch lines played a big part in the plots.

In The Lady Vanishes the disappearance of a woman is given significance by happening on a train.

The Untouchables
Mission: Impossible
The Fisher King
North by Northwest

The idea of being chased and being unable to escape crops up in countless action films. The chase is completely linear - you can't jump off a speeding train. So the dramatic tension is provided by the knowledge that the chased must either turn and confront the chaser - as in Michael Mann's Collateral - or find some way of disguising themselves.

And in addition to the dozens of films where the train is used, effectively, as a cramped hotel on wheels, for dramatic purposes, there are those where it takes a starring role.

"The train becomes a character in its own right," says Mr Earnshaw.

In Buster Keaton's The General a train is chased down by the protagonist. In French Connection they have to chase a hijacked elevated train. And the train is effectively the star of the Titfield Thunderbolt.

The 39 Steps
When you're being chased on a train it's quite difficult to get off

Then there's a whole sub-genre of derailing trains. Whether it's Lawrence of Arabia in shining white striding amid the smoking wreckage of an Ottoman train, or the frantic efforts to blow the Bridge on the River Kwai, the difficulty of stopping a train appeals to us.

But it's not just about locomotives and carriages. As much as the silver screen is obsessed with sleek steam trains it is also in love with pristine marble station concourses.

Roger Thornhill's iconic journey starts in the palatial Grand Central Terminal with the much repeated theme of the fugitive trying to board a train without being spotted.

And the station also serves as a place where drama can happen juxtaposed with commuters plodding along with their business.

A classic example is when the Guardian journalist in The Bourne Ultimatum passes through London Waterloo station.

"The Paddy Considine character is in the line of sight in a crowded station," says Mr Earnshaw. "All of that tension is happening while ordinary people pass by. A good film-maker can build that dynamic exceedingly well. Quite often they can film guerrilla style while you and I are queuing for our bagel."

Dancing commuters

The same tension applies when Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise, uses a payphone in London Liverpool Street Station in Mission: Impossible.

T-Mobile used the same space for their recent flash mob advert. And that in turn was inspired by a sequence in the Terry Gilliam's Fisher King where travellers waltz in Grand Central.

Crocodile Dundee
Sliding Doors

In Brian de Palma's the Untouchables, Union Station provides the backdrop for the Odessa Steps pastiche as the gunfight goes on as the pram bounces down the stairs.

"It is a mode of travel that can be used to fit in any genre of film," says Mr Horton. "You can have it in a comedy with people hanging off the train, the maiden tied to the track, thrillers, murder mysteries. It can be used for a sense of excitement."

Perhaps we love to see trains in movies because we still do associate them with the romance and cool of the golden age.

It is slightly harder to see the glamour of a scene taking place in one of the effluent-smelling vestibule areas of a Virgin Pendolino.

Here is a selection of your comments.

No mention of Doctor Zhivago, one of the 20th Century's outstanding films, which featured several important train sequences; for example, the cattle-train journey undertaken by Zhivago and his family during their escape from Moscow to the Urals - and who could forget Zhivago coming face to face with Strelnikov on his Bolshevik train?
Pauline Sims, Alcaucin, Spain

No room for The Train, with Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield fighting it out over paintings looted from Paris by the Nazis, and some of the best train crashes on film ever? Or the Taking of Pelham 123 with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw playing cat and mouse over a hijacked subway train. I believe Tony Scott has just completed a remake of the latter. Will it be better? I doubt it.
Jim Middleton, Edinburgh

Don't forget the Hogwarts Express. Everyone who has been on, or seen, a real steam train knows that there is a romance and excitement that you don't get from other forms of transport. The smell, the sight and the immense mechanics of it. Great stuff. The more films that work to help preserve steam, the better.
David Cawdeary, Portsmouth

The 70s version of "The Thirty-Nine Steps" is another classic railway film. And then there's Ealing's masterpiece Train Of Events, which weaves about a dozen plots together all arround a train journey from Euston to Liverpool, which culminates in a spectacular crash.
Jack Howard, Leeds, UK

Trains are a social and sociable form of transport - people interact on them. Cars are fundamentally antisocial. What sort of story can unfold in a car? Even road movies are mostly about the stops, not the driving.
Anthony, Brighton

You forgot one of the greatest train films of all time: The Railway Children, which uses nearly all of the elements in the article - the station setting, the train (almost) derailing and the thrill of speed and the journey to elsewhere. The production at the NRM in York last year, which used a real steam train, proved trains can be just an impressive on the stage.
Annie, Cambridgeshire

That's all very well, but would it not be so nice if those in charge got their details right? It is very off-putting, when in the middle of an exciting train scene, your [anoraky] partner exclaims "That's not the right livery/track size/scenery/whatever ....." You'd be amazed [or perhaps not] how often that happens.
NS, Cardiff

The one time train-spotters amongst us always enjoy a film with good train content, but are often disappointed. It's so difficult to get a train that is correct for the period of the film - just as you don't expect to see a Morris Minor 1000 in a WW2 film we don't expect to see railway carriages and locomotives that were built in the 1950's. As for the Railway Children, fine film though it undoubtedly was, we eagerly await the Edwardian express and get a shunting engine with two coaches on a single track! Sad, I know, but there it is.
Mike Bird, Ottery St Mary, UK

To the list of great Metro films, you should add "Kontroll", a bleakly-amusing film set in the twilight world of the Budapest Metro. The harsh justice of the ticket controllers should appeal to every paying passenger who hates seeing fare-dodgers get away with it. And for supreme continuity awfulness, "The Cassandra Crossing", where a supposedly non-stop train manages to change locos - and from electric wires to diesel and back - in different scenes.
David, Edinburgh, Scotland

How could you fail to mention "Oh Mr Porter!"? Famous line: (Will Hay to Moore Marriott) "Everything round here's either two old or doesn't work. And you're both." Classic.
Paul Martin, Portsmouth

Hitchcock was undoubtedly the director who made the most effective investment in train imagery. As well as The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest, trains are essential to the action and the meanings of a plethora of other Hitchcock films. One of the many memorable sequences of The 39 Steps shows Richard Hannay leaping off a train on the Forth Bridge. The heroine of Shadow of a Doubt is nearly murdered on a fast-moving train. And the murderous duo in Strangers on a Train have their first meeting on board a luxury American train.

Pre-privatisation, the train symbolised modernity, progress and speed. Remember too with its dining cars and first, second and third class compartments, the pre-war train reflected pointedly the socially stratified realities of then contemporary British society.
Dr Kevin De Ornellas, Belfast, Ireland

One of the best is the Czech film Closely Observed Trains about the wartime Czech resistance. And there's the Railway Children of course. One of the James Bond films was filmed on the Nene Valley Railway, and you can see Peterborough as the train goes under the A1 road.
Geoff Kerr, Todmorden UK

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