All Aboard! The Most Terrific Train Movies
Those Lumiere brothers had it right — there is something undeniably cinematic about the locomotive, which appeared in the first-ever celluloid in 1896. When it comes to train travel, you never know who might be on board … and therein lies both its mystery and its thrill. Click on to revisit some of the more successful movie moments set on train tracks all over the world.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
The highly-anticipated update to the Agatha Christie classic introduces us to a brand-new Hercule Poirot, played by the inimitable Kenneth Branagh, who also directs. Along for the ride is an impressive stable of supporting players, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Star Wars‘ Daisy Ridley, and Josh Gad.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Albert Finney, later of Annie and Erin Brockovich fame, took on the iconic role of Poirot in this first stab, as it were, at Christie’s timeless mystery. Orient Express epitomized the retro-chic feel of 20th century train travel, and mixed in a healthy dose of danger and intrigue.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Wes Anderson’s ambitious achievement played on his familiar themes of father and son, but it also explored the relationship shared by brothers, in this case played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, as they grapple with deep emotional healing against an exotic Indian backdrop. This movie meanders much like the train the trio find themselves on, and since we’re in Wes Anderson territory, the quirkiness at each pitstop is quite welcome.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre has several standout train sequences, not the least of which is found in this clever how-dunnit involving a madman who meets a stranger on a train and embroils him in an even madder plot. One of the Master of Suspense’s more overlooked, underappreciated entries.
The Lady Vanishes (1979)
Another of Hitch’s locomotively-inclined plots was found in his 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes. In the ’70s update, the proverbial Hitchcock blonde is played by Cybill Shepherd, who is beyond perplexed when a fellow passenger aboard her train suddenly disappears, and no one will acknowledge she existed in the first place. Suffice it to say, it only gets murkier from there….
Silver Streak (1976)
This overlooked comic gem marks the first onscreen pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, who went on to make equally uproarious movies like See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Stir Crazy. Here, the pair get enmeshed in a dastardly plot worthy of the finest train mysteries, if it wasn’t for all that hilarious slapstick. The film also features an early starring role from the brilliant, late Jill Clayburgh.
Train to Busan (2016)
One of the better recent entries in the ever-burgeoning zombie trend, this Korean export takes the terror of the undead and puts it on a high-speed train, which makes that airplane sequence in World War Z look like a walk in the park. Definitely a superior pick for a thrilling night in with Netflix.
The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
While quaintly dated now, the plot of this ’70s spine-tingler reads like a paranoid nightmare — passengers on board a European express liner have all been exposed to a deadly virus and cannot disembark. With some over-the-top disaster-movie acting from the likes of Sophia Loren and Richard Harris, it begs the question: Why hasn’t this one gone through a welcome makeover in the Hollywood recycle/reboot machine?
Another oddity from Korean maestro Bong Joon Ho (who brought us the brilliant The Host), Snowpiercer takes the bleak post-apocalyptic dregs of society and puts them on a train — one that perpetually circles the frozen globe. If this allegorical tale sounds weird and unlikely, that’s because it is. Plus, it features one of the weirdest, unlikeliest performances from Tilda Swinton to date.
Runaway Train (1985)
It’s always surprising and satisfying when a genre film — in this case a hard-boiled action thriller that feels a bit like Speed on a train — is recognized for the subtler aspects of moviemaking. Jon Voight, no stranger to acclaimed action movies (he starred in Deliverance some 13 years prior), was nominated for an Oscar here for his role of Manny, a hardened con on the lam who finds himself on an out-of-contol train. His costar Eric Roberts was also recognized by the Academy with a nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
What’s with the mid-’70s and all these train movies? We’re not sure, but this NYC-based hijacking movie packs a particularly taut punch even after all these years, which is probably why the film was remade in 2009 with Denzel Washington (an actor with a curious fondness for train actioners… but more on that in a bit).
Money Train (1995)
After their extremely successful match-up in 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump, Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes boarded this NYC crime caper as transit cops gone wrong who go after a stash of cash. Apart from the unique camaraderie shared by Snipes and Harrelson, the other major standout in Money Train comes in the form of Jennifer Lopez, in her first major film role.
Just one year after he starred in the reboot of Pelham 123, Denzel paired with Star Trek’s Chris Pine in this gritty urban nailbiter following an engineer and conductor as they try to reign in a megaton freight train loaded with toxic chemicals. Some of the stunts in this one look positively nausea-inducing. Somehow, though, you just know these guys are going to be OK in the end.
Oh, poor unsuspecting American tourists. Thirteen years after Money Train, Woody Harrelson got back on board the train movie phenom with this entry, playing the hapless half of a couple who get caught up with the wrong people (some of whom are played by Ben Kingsley at his trademark baddest, and a devious looking, mascara-clad Kate Mara). The other half of the couple is played (exceptionally, as usual) by a whimpering, panicky Emily Mortimer.
Regardless of your feelings on a post-Rachel-in-Friends Jennifer Aniston, you have to hand it to her in this dark and twisty actioner, based on the James Siegel novel. Co-starring an earnest Clive Owen and crazy-bonkers Vincent Cassel, this movie about a pair of adulterous lovers who meet on a train and soon get, well, derailed by events out of ther control will keep you guessing until the last possible moment.
The Girl on the Train (2016)
It’s a shame that Emily Blunt’s searing performance as an end-of-her-rope alcoholic depressive couldn’t save this moody adaptation of the literary phenomenon, which was hobbled by some rather generic supporting players. Yet, in addition to Blunt, Justin Theroux does some of his best work yet as a cunning, misogynistic brute spied by Blunt’s girl through the window of a passing commuter train.
The General (1926)
This Civil War-set action movie might be the most classic and timeless entry in Buster Keaton’s formidable list of credits. Not only is this film responsible for many of the action-on-a-train tropes we’re now used to, but the star’s elaborate death-defying stunts more than stand the test of time.
Source Code (2011)
Time travel movies are always saddled with the challenge of keeping murky plot points clear for the audience, but Source Code proved successful thanks in no small part to Jake Gyllenhaal — as well as a pulse-pounding, beat-the-clock premise involving a bomb that will explode on a commuter train in T-minus eight minutes, and the special-ops cop sent back in time to find the person responsible.
Throw Momma From the Train (1987)
In this biting, surprisingly creative riff on the Strangers on a Train premise, Danny DeVito (who also directed) has a harebrained proposal for his long-suffering creative writing teacher (Billy Crystal) — I’ll kill your hateful ex-wife if you kill my even more hateful mother (played by The Goonies’ Anne Ramsey, in an Oscar-nominated role).
The Polar Express (2004)
Robert Zemeckis’ contribution to holiday filmdom has an event-movie feel, even now — a boy who’s grown dubious of the existence of Santa and the Christmas spirit in general is stirred the night of Christmas Eve and jolted awake to the rumblings of a magical train bound to the North Pole and the home of Father Christmas himself. This Christmas ‘road’ movie follows the boy’s northbound adventures, along with several other pajama-clad tots aboard the train.
Twentieth Century (1934)
A battle of wits and tempers between original Hollywood legends Carole Lombard and John Barrymore, 20th Century is Howard Hawks’ winking nod to the industry of the day. Down-on-his-luck Broadway director Oscar (Barrymore) seeks to lure his former squeeze and muse, Lily (Lombard), back to the Great White Way. Thing is, Lily is now the toast of Tinseltown and isn’t interested in anything her former director has to offer. It’s during their coincidental ride together on the 20th Century Limited train that their fortunes might unexpectedly change.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
Holiday travel nightmares are ever relatable, but that’s only part of what makes this odd couple comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy so memorable. The other part? Steve Martin and John Candy, who play the straight man and nutball (respectively) to such a T it’s like they wrote the book.
Honorable Mention: Toy Story 3 (2010)
While the Toy Story movies encompass so much more than trains, that good old American toy — the train set — gets a prime spotlight in the high-octane opening of the third installment in this winning Pixar franchise. These movies are the definition of fun, and Toy Story 2 and 3 are good movies to watch if you need a good (no, great) cry, too.