The meanings of movie trains

A common sight in the movies, trains can symbolise everything from romance to suspense. Aliya takes a look at their varied meanings...

In January 1896 the Lumiere brothers gave a public showing of their film, The Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat Station, and an astonished audience watched projected images tell a tale of a locomotive coming to a halt, and passengers disembarking. Maybe we viewers have always been a little in love with movie trains since that day, because there are an awful lot of them in film history.

As the steam train gave way to diesel, electric, and Maglev technology, so movie watchers changed too, becoming adept at reading the information on the screen and picking up so many different meanings as part of each cinematic journey. It became harder to take them on a thrilling ride of adventure; they’d seen it all before.

So what does it mean when the director chooses to show us a train on the screen? Is the train a different kind of a symbol depending on the genre? Here’s a list of some of the ways that trains are used in filmmaking, with a few examples thrown in from some great movies along the way…

The train of adventure

Nothing symbolises that first step into a land of adventure like a train journey. Maybe it’s the idea of being able to travel across open country, seeing it from the windows, finding yourself in an entirely new place – often trains represent an inward journey as well as a real one.

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In children’s films trains often have a magical element. The Polar Express (2004) takes children from suburbia to the North Pole, with servings of hot chocolate along the way. Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express will take you from the very mundane Kings Cross to the greatest magical school in the world. Or sometimes the destination is unknown. Take Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989); Kiki leaves home to become a real witch, and spends the first night sheltering from a storm in a transporter train. It carries her from her safe past to a place unfamiliar to her – her adulthood.

J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) uses a train as a similar catalyst. Children witness a train wreck, and the aftermath of that places them into adult situations and dangers. Sometimes you don’t even have to ride on the train for it to derail your childhood.

Once you grow up, a railway journey heralds a different kind of change, or a fresh challenge. Gary Cooper leaves behind his home town of Mandrake Falls and takes the train to New York City after inheriting $20 million in Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936). Departing on the train is a big deal to the inhabitants of Mandrake Falls – they all turn out to cheer him off, and he plays the tuba from the carriage as it takes him away from home. It was normal behaviour in Mandrake Falls, but his innocence already looks out of place on the train, and by the time he reaches New York he’s in danger of being taken for a different kind of ride.

Some Like It Hot (1959) makes great use of the business of travelling by train to add humour to the adventures of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis; the sleeping compartments add opportunity for climbing around, hanging upside-down, and trying to get close to the beautiful Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) without her realising she’s on an adventure of discovery with two men in women’s nightdresses.

Karen Blixen’s journeys through Africa make use of a train to highlight the difference between her preconceptions and the reality of her new situation. In Out Of Africa (1985) the train threads across a vast expanse of savannah, and comes to a halt for Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford) as Blixen (Meryl Streep) meets him for the first time. He loads his haul of ivory on to the roof, and she asks him why they stopped the train for him; he replies, “Around here, it’s rude not to.” Even the role of the train, that great symbol of Western industrial progress, is different in this world. She must reconsider everything she thinks she knows.

The train of thrills

So many great thrillers make use of two very important facts about trains: they can go really fast, and they don’t stop easily.

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Source Code (2011) chooses the perfect setting – a Chicago commuter train on which Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) must replay eight minutes of time in order to find the identity of the man who has planted a bomb on board. The bomb cannot be defused, and the event cannot be changed. It will explode. Time speeds onwards, like the train on the tracks that have been laid for it, and both must continue to their final destination.

The unstoppability of trains is hardly a new feature in films. In 1917 Gloria Swanson was tied to railroad tracks in Teddy At The Throttle, only to be saved by an enormous dog (the titular Teddy). If you thought silent films were slow and boring, I recommend trying this one out. It races along faster than the train that’s meant to do in Gloria. The only difficulty is in keeping up with the plot.

Trains have a benefit over cars when it comes to thrillers – it’s a lot harder to get off, and if you do manage to disembark before the station, you might find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Transsiberian (2008) makes the most of the frozen tundra to increase the sense of danger and isolation, and The Narrow Margin (1952) uses the inside of the train as a cramped, dangerous place. Night Train To Munich (1940) uses enemy territory to heighten the danger – Rex Harrison and Margaret Lockwood try to escape Nazi Germany on a train that has been commandeered to carry troops to the front line. Peril lies both inside and outside the carriage.

In Westerns trains often get robbed or blown up, but sometimes the train represents the arrival of something new and dangerous: Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), for instance. The villains arrive by railway, which is a symbol of the death of the traditional Wild West. Capitalism and greed will destroy the openness of the plains as surely as the laying of the track. Other films that use the train as the harbinger of destruction include High Noon, Jesse James, and even Blazing Saddles.

The train of action

Action movies love many forms of transport for the sense of speed and excitement they give to the viewer, and the train is no exception – why punch someone on the ground when you can punch them on the roof of a carriage? Why run after them when you can hurtle towards a ravine where the tracks are looking decidedly dodgy?

In fact, why stick with one form of transport at all? Mission: Impossible (1996) combined trains with helicopters, Priest (2011) combined trains with motorcycles. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989) and Madagascar 3 (2012) have the decision to combine train journeys and circus equipment in common. Toy Story 3 (2010) has a great sequence in which Sherriff Woody takes on the evil One-Eyed Bart on top of a train with the bridge out up ahead, and makes gleeful fun of every cliché you can think of.

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With the rise of the superhero movie came the subversion of the classic unstoppable train. Now they can be stopped – by someone who is better than your boring standard human. Superman, Spiderman, the X-Men, Mr Incredible, and Hancock have all had dealings with trains. In Unbreakable (2000), the first sign that David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is not your average American comes not when he prevents a devastating train wreck, but walks away from one without a scratch. The idea allows the film to step outside of the superhero stricture and feel a new kind of tension – will this hero choose to be all he can be? Just as the hero steps out of the mould, so does the villain and the plot. More than the train is being derailed here.

The train of suspenseful sexiness

No director has used the image of a train as a symbol of sex and danger so effectively as Hitchcock. The phallic imagery of a train going into a tunnel as a representation of the sexual act appears at the end of North By Northwest (1959), which also uses the dining car as a setting for a sizzling exchange between Roger O Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). They flirt and feint with a sophistication that suits this stylish thriller of assumed identities.

Hitchcock knew that a train journey separates us from our everyday reality and presents us with the opportunity to take on different roles and act in unexpected ways, heightening the suspense. Identities can change in the course of a single journey. For instance, in The Lady Vanishes (1938) Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) disappears during the course of a train journey… but Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) remembers meeting her, and in the course of searching for her uncovers a spy network that trades on concealment and duplicity. Or the nature of our protagonist can change – Hitchcock had his two main characters board a train as strangers and alight as would-be murderers in the disturbing Strangers On A Train (1951).

In Suspicion (1941) Hitchcock plays with our expectations of a quiet train journey. The film starts in darkness, and we hear Cary Grant’s voice apologising for stepping on someone’s foot. Then we are given the picture – Grant has entered Joan Fontaine’s carriage (another tongue-in-cheek Hitchcock euphemism…). Then, when the ticket inspector arrives, Grant cheerfully informs him he doesn’t have a first class ticket and asks Fontaine to pay for it. It’s an unpredictable beginning to their relationship. Do we take it seriously or not? Grant’s character, Johnny Aysgarth, is as dark as the train tunnel, and we have no idea what he’s capable of – maybe even murder

The train of romance

Two kinds of romance can be summoned up by railway: happy love stories, and tragic ones. If it’s a tragic love story, chances are the train isn’t going to get boarded at all.

One of the greatest love films ever made is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) meet in a railway station café, and become friends. When their friendship deepens into love, they realise they can’t hurt their spouses and decide to part. They never do take a train ride together. Their love remains in the café, with the stale rock cakes and cold tea.

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Anna Karenina is a classic novel that has been made into a film many times. But no matter how often she makes it to the big screen, her romance with Count Vronsky always ends badly. She chooses to throw herself under the train rather than board it. My favourite version of this occurs in Funny Face (1957), where photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) tells reluctant model Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) to stand near a beautiful steam train and pretend she’s Anna Karenina. She asks him solemnly if she should throw herself under. He tells her that won’t be required – this is musical comedy, after all, not tragedy.

What about happy love affairs? Before Sunrise (1995) starts on a train and ends at a train station, the implication being that travel gives us the opportunity to meet and learn from people. It’s a beautiful film, filled with optimism and intelligence. I can’t think of many more happy train love stories – I wonder why that is? Maybe, as Sandra Bullock would say in Speed (yes, I know, it’s a bus movie, but there is an underground train in it at one point…), “relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last…” Perhaps trains are just too fast, too sexy, too powerful, for happily ever afters.

So I’ve missed out hundreds of great train films, including Von Ryan’s Express, The Cassandra Crossing, Emperor Of The North Pole, and The Darjeeling Limited, and deliberately didn’t even get started on underground trains. Apologies if I missed out your favourites.

Let’s finish on that evergreen hero who really knows how to use a train – James Bond. He has seduced women and defeated baddies while travelling along the rails in so many of his films, including From Russia With Love, Live And Let Die, GoldenEye, Casino Royale and Skyfall, and has managed to be sexy, thrilling, romantic, and adventurous on his travels, combining all of our movie meanings into one package. Bond films understand that the viewers want stories that take us away on a long ride. It may not be very believable, but by the time the two hour journey ends, we really do feel like we’ve been somewhere. And that’s the key to a great film – transportation.

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