A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me if I was looking forward to the new film adaptation of The Lone Ranger, which hit Kiwi cinemas last week.
I replied that I was anticipating it with some degree of excitement because the trailers pointed to trains having a significant presence in the film.
I went on to explain that any film that prominently features trains will easily get me on board, because heck, I just love movies that have a bit with a train.
My friend replied: "So, big Wild Wild West fan then are you?"
I had no response to that brutal takedown, but I maintain that movies in which trains have a large role to play are (usually) awesome. The mechanics of train travel are particularly well-suited to the parameters of filmed storytelling - the fixed path is inherently suspenseful, and the form makes for a great excuse to cram a bunch of characters together in a small space.
Plus a derailment is always good cinema.
I'm happy to report that despite all the negative buzz, I enjoyed The Lone Ranger. It's filled with old-fasioned derring-do (which actually feels novel at times), Johnny Depp is way less annoying than he's been of late, and yes, the train bits are awesome.
There are two huge train set-pieces, one at the beginning and one at the end. Despite the lag in-between them, the train sequences break new ground and more than justify the act of viewing the film.
I'm not particularly drawn to trains in general, but I can't stay away from train movies. So what are the great ones?
Westerns are of course more predisposed to featuring a train than any other kind of movie, and the one that came to mind more than once while watching The Lone Ranger was Back to the Future III. The 1990 trilogy-capper was one of the first films to mount a Western in the style of a Summer popcorn flick.
The big-budget dexterity of BTTF III's railroad finalé is repeatedly evoked in The Lone Ranger, which naturally features slightly less hoverboard action. The massive train crash that caps the time travel classic remains the benchmark for train-plummeting-into-a-ravine scenes.
There's a long tradition of great Western train movies (going back over a hundred years to 1903's The Great Train Robbery) - and it would be remiss to discuss such matters without mentioning Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), 3:10 To Yuma (1957) and The Train Robbers (1973) but my all-time favourite train-centric Western is the 1975 Charles Bronson mystery thriller Breakheart Pass which has aged much better than the previous year's Murder on the Orient Express, to which it is often compared.
Bronson plays a ne'r do well who finds himself on an army transport train heading deep into snowy Indian territory during the American Civil War. When fellow passengers start turning up dead, Bronson takes it upon himself to investigate, but the film effectively teases the true nature of his loyalties for most of its running time.
Breakheart Pass features plenty of effective train-based set-pieces, none more nerve-wracking than its spin on the old "uncoupled passenger car rolling backwards down a hill" gambit. The resulting crash was filmed by hurling actual carriages into a ravine, and challenges Back To The Future III's finalé for its weighty authenticity.
Breakheart Pass also features an unique response to the classic train movie conflict of a blown track: Charles Durning's train master is wholly unfazed by the sabotaged rails, and simply instructs his men to remove some track from behind the train to replace the blown rails ahead of them. I love Charles Durning.
Going beyond the Western, 1968's minor cult item Dark of the Sun (aka The Mercenaries) is easily one of the coolest train movies ever made.
The film stars Rod Taylor (The Birds, The Time Machine) and Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen) as a couple of mercenaries in the rebellion-ravaged Congo who accept a government job to take a steam train into the jungle with a bunch of soldiers to rescue the European residents of a small jungle town, which is also home to a huge store of diamonds.
The remarkably brutal Dark of the Sun exploits a variety of train action possibilities, with the crowning achievement being an excrutiatingly tense escape scene in which a train load of civilians nervously wait for timelocked safe to open so they can escape a horde of invading savage rebels. This movie has been turning up on TCM a bit lately, and is an aboslute must-see for fans of classic macho cinema.
As much as I love Dark of the Sun (seriously, it's great!), there's no purer cinematic ode to the beauty and power of trains than 1973's Emperor of the North Pole.
The film (which has nothing to do with the North Pole - you have to see the movie to really understand the title) is set in America during the great depression when hobo life was at its peak. Lee Marvin stars as A No. 1 (which has to be the coolest character name in the history of cinema) a legendary hobo who's the only man with the skills to hitch a ride on the train overseen by the notoriously brutal Shack (Ernest Borgnine - playing evil with 110 per cent conviction), a railroad man who uses his steel hammer to sort out any 'boes that dare jump his train.
The film is a fascinating insight into Depression-era hobo culture, and the grizzled leads have never been better. It's amazing to watch the villainy seep from every pore of the usually genial Borgnine. It's a harsh film at times (there's a train-derived hobo bifurcation in the opening five minutes) but the scrappy dignity and hard-bitten camaraderie of the classic hobo lifestyle are both beautifully evoked.
The fog-laden early morning sequence in which Shack's train rolls out of the station as the hoboes hidden along the track invisbly taunt him about A No. 1's intention to hitch a ride is probably my all-time favourite train scene.
A youthful Keith Carradine is in support as a young hobo named Cigaret who wants A No. 1 to teach him the bo' ways. Cigaret. A No. 1. Shack. This movie has the best character names ever. Today's audiences get 'Stacker Pentecost' and 'Raleigh Beckett' - two of the characters from this week's release Pacific Rim.
Emperor of the North Pole is set (and was filmed on) the railroads of the American state of Oregon, notable for high wooden bridges over rivers and lush leafy surroundings. These railways were also the setting for one of great train set-pieces of all time - the bridge run in Stand By Me.
Rob Reiner's 1986 coming-of-age classic rarely strays from the rails, and must be credited with laying the foundations for an appreciation of the railroad aesthetic in me.
When the train-centric comedy thriller Silver Streak (which features an impressive train-crash finalé) was released in 1976, many critics noted the influence of Alfred Hitchcock on the film. The master of suspense has always been associated with train movies, but while 1951's Strangers On A Train is probably the most famous example (and a fantastic movie to boot), the titular train has a relatively small role to play.
Hitchcock's greatest train movie was 1938's The Lady Vanishes, a rip-roaring spy thriller which is pretty much set entirely on a train as it travels through Europe. It's one of the master's most purely entertaining films, and exploits the claustrophobia of the train setting very effectively.
The notoriously filthy-minded Hitchcock was also responsible for the most famous instance of the ol' train-going-into-a-tunnel shot as a shameless metaphor for you-know-what. The film in which it appears - 1959's North By Northwest is playing on the big screen at this year's film festival, so let's all look forward to enjoying that moment together in the Civic.
I forced myself to watch 1976 disaster movie The Cassandra Crossing because of it's train-centric plot - it's about a European passenger train that authorities have forcibly re-routed to a perilous bridge because of a lethal outbreak onboard.
Coming as it did at the tail end of the disaster movie cycle (which would be rendered wholly passé four years later by Airplane!). The Cassandra Crossing's lack of self-awareness generates a lot of unintentional laughs - it almost feels Zucker-esque at times. But the train elements are utilised well, and it features a suitably grisly train-goes-off-bridge finalé. And O.J. Simpson.
I was reminded of The Cassandra Crossing while watching Tony Scott's 2010 runaway train thriller Unstoppable, which benefitted hugely from a grounded approach to trains and the personalities that work with them. Rarely has the weight of a train felt so palpable on screen. That kind of heft was entirely absent from Scott's previous film, also a train-centric movie starring Denzel Washington - 2009's The Taking of Pelham 123 remake. I should probably do a separate blog on subway movies, but it's worth mentioning that the 1974 original is better than Money Train.
Speaking of runaway trains though, if you've never seen 1985's triple Oscar-nominee Runaway Train, you should amend that soon and take yourself back to a time when Eric Roberts had actual potential as a movie star.
One of the better train-centric thrillers of the past few decades is the not-particularly well-remembered 1990 Gene Hackman vehicle Narrow Margin. He plays a district attorney attempting to get witness Anne Archer safely back to Washington so she can testify against a mafia killer.
He figures train travel is their safest bet, but before long various hit men are chasing them throughout the carriages. Narrow Margin isn't a flashy or bombastic film, but it gets a lot of tension out of its train setting. The 1952 film it is a remake of is also worth watching if you like this sort of thing.
When it comes to good guys and bad guys fighting it out on a train though, they don't come better than Kiwi director Geoff Murphy's 1995 non-classic Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Unquestionably star Steven Segaal's best film, the "Die Hard on a train" action thriller is an absolute hoot, and features one of the best collections of movie henchmen in the history of the action genre. If there's a better train-centric action movie out there, I've yet to encounter it.
A more recent train thriller that got a much smaller audience than it deserved was 2008's Transsiberian, which stars Woody Harrelson (Money Train) and Emily Mortimer (Disney's The Kid) as a young couple who get into trouble on the legendary Moscow to Mongolia line. It's not a life-changing film, but is worth watching.
Another favourite recent train film of mine is Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, a rare train film with no thriller elements. Before Sunrise is another example.
There are plenty of great films that feature an impressive train sequence, but couldn't really be called train movies. Some of the more memorable of these include the original King Kong; 1963's From Russia With Love (for Bond's legendary fight scene with Robert Shaw in a train carriage); 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which features a bravaura opening action sequence onboard a circus train); 1993's The Fugitive (awesome train crash); 1995's The Hunted (an otherwise undistinguished film which features an amazing ninjas-on-a-bullet-train sequence); 2005's Batman Begins (the villain death); 2008's Wanted (which featured a ridiculous-but-awesome train falls-into-ravine crash) and last year's Skyfall, the pre-title action sequence for which benefitted greatly from the presence of a train. I kind of see The Bridge on The River Kwai as fitting into these terms as well.
An attempt to determine if there are any upcoming train movies only resulted in this weird sci-fi movie film which looks like it will cater specifically to train obsessives. I am onboard.
Trains are so central to cinema it would be futile to try and name them all. The films mentioned in this blog entry are simply what I consider to be some of the more interesting examples. Plus for some reason I've never gotten around to seeing The Train.
* Do you love trains in movies? Favourite examples? Don't say Money Train. Would more trains have helped Cowboys vs Aliens? Comment Below!