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INT. TRAIN – MOVING: A Look Back at Some Great Train Movies

I’ve always liked films set on trains. They provide instant high concept and perceived production value, while never compromising on intimate character study. In many cases the protagonist has the run of the entire train, including the roof (more on this later), but are still very much confined to the dangerous physics of leaving a train in motion. As you can imagine this provides many thrilling obstacles for filmmakers to play with.

When it comes to what qualifies as a Great Train Movie, they usually have to at least follow a multitude of train movie rules.

TRAIN MOVIE RULES:

  • Someone is either thrown or jumps off a moving train.
  • At some point in the film someone walks or is chased across the roof of a moving train.
  • Someone is decapitated by either an oncoming train from the other direction or from a tunnel.
  • Someone enters the wrong compartment making everyone on the train think they are a pervert.
  • The train derails.
  • A bar/food car on a movie train is the nicest place on earth.
  • Overly cinematic sex on a train.
  • The train driver is incapacitated somehow/runaway train.
  • Someone jumps ON to the moving train narrowly avoiding tragedy.
  • A chase through the entire length of the train ending in the baggage car.
  • Agatha Christie-like mystery.

These are three of the more interesting entries in the list of Great Train Movies:

TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

The genre that train movies work best with is certainly thrillers, but that’s not always the case. Recently, films like Sang-ho Yeon’s 2016 horror hit Train to Busan put a hat on a hat fusing a train thriller with a zombie movie. If you like zombie movies and Korean horror this one won’t disappoint. If you are a train movie guy, you’ll like it even more.

As with Great Train Movies, zombie films follow certain rules. As most zombie fans will tell you their rules have changed a lot over the years. What used to be the industry standard, or “Romero Rules,” have drastically changed in the last twenty years. “Romero Rules” meant zombies walked slowly, can only be killed with a shot through the brain, and if they bit you…that’s it. With the notable exception of the uber successful Walking Dead series, the running zombie seems to have taken hold.

What makes Train to Busan even more interesting isn’t just the quick zombies which provide a much scarier element especially since they have to run after a moving train, it’s the shoot-them-through-the-brain thing is hardly a thing here. In a twist in the genre no one saw coming, zombies are rarely shot in this film. This extra layer of desperation plays out when living passengers must somehow navigate their way through a train car full of the living dead without making a sound.

Train to Busan became the sixth highest grossing Korean film of all time and remains a unique entry into both the zombie and train genres.

SILVER STREAK (1977)

Another genre the train movie bends toward is the Rom-Com / Buddy Comedy of Arthur Hiller’s 1977 film Silver Streak. I am an unapologetic fan of this film as it works on so many levels. First of all, it’s the first pairing of the late greats Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, a comic duo whose screen act has never truly been matched.

In both this, and their later comic pairing in Stir Crazy (a film that also bent genres with comedy meets prison movie) three years later, these brilliant actors use every train obstacle to the delight of us all. In terms of train movie rules this one has them all.

Despite this being a comedy, Silver Streak justifies most Train Movie Rules shockingly well. Gene Wilder as the hapless George Caldwell is an ordinary guy who witnesses a dead man being thrown off the train in front of his compartment window. When no one believes him, he investigates on his own only to have the killers turn their sights on him. In the meantime, he romances the beautiful Jill Clayburgh, escapes the law who thinks he’s a murderer, and befriends an unlikely ally in Pryor’s part-time thief Grover. Pryor’s comedic relationship with Wilder is a masterclass of listening.

Wilder recounted how Pryor came to him with concerns about the infamous “blackface” scene in which Pryor helps disguise Wilder using shoe polish to pass him off as black. As written the scene suggests Wilder’s new disguise fools everyone which Pryor found offensive. On Wilder’s insistence Pryor helped tweak the scene to what it ultimately became. No African Americans think Wilder is black but they make it past the cops anyway.

Later on in the film when Wilder’s Caldwell is caught by the evil Devereau played with quiet cool by the always great Patrick McGoohan, Pryor’s Grover is faced with blatant racism when Devereau calls him the “N” word. Pryor whips out a pistol on him turning the tables in a very real, yet still hilariously satisfying way.

The end of Silver Streak shows some of the best practical stunts ever put on film. With the train a runaway, the entire train station needs to clear out before the engine plows through hundreds of awaiting passengers.  The resulting finale is simply marvelous and even has an early cameo by the late, great Fred Willard.

I think in every way this film still holds up. It works as a buddy comedy, a thriller, and an excellent example of a Great Train Movie.

NARROW MARGIN (1990)

 

Another film that follows many of the Train Movie Rules is the classic thriller by Peter Hyams’ Narrow Margin. Hyams’ underrated Narrow Margin, the 1990 remake of the 1952 film noir classic of the same name, follows a Los Angeles district attorney sent to protect a woman who witnessed a mob murder.

Hackman as the district attorney Robert Caulfield must get Anne Archer’s Hunnicut to safety on, you guessed it, a train. The train has assassins lying in wait to murder Hunnicut to prevent her from testifying, including Hyams’ stalwart James B. Sikking.

Sikking plays head killer Nelson with an almost business-like cool making the negotiation scene between him and Hackman so much fun.

What follows is some text book Train Movie Rules including a very satisfying ending combining rules: 2, 3, and 1.

I highly recommend this film for many reasons. It’s beautifully shot and acted and has the kind of real-life stakes that make thrillers so much fun. Taking a high-octane situation and confining it to a train gives this claustrophobic cat and mouse a thrill ride like no other.

Hackman and Archer turn in some of their best work and Hyams’ style is both a homage to its noir original and something completely fresh. See it!

These are literally just a few of the dozens of great train movies.

Other great examples include:

  • Terror Train (1990/2022) Horror
  • Unstoppable (2010) Action
  • The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974/2009) Crime
  • Runaway Train (1985) Drama/Prison Break
  • Bullet Train (2022) Comedy/Dark Comedy
  • Murder on the Orient Express (1974/2017) Thriller/ Christie (rule 11)
  • Snowpiercer (2013) Sci-Fi/Drama
  • Horror Express (1972) Horror/Comedy (Cushing/Lee Paring)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)  Thriller
  • Mission: Impossible (1996) Action/Spy Franchise
  • Unstoppable (2010) Thriller/Action
  • Source Code (2011) Sci-Fi /Thriller

 

Fred Shahadi is an award-winning filmmaker,
playwright, and television writer living in Los Angeles.
He is the author of the Sci-Fi JFK/Conspiracy thriller
Shoot the Moon.

 

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