This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Train Movies. This is an area I'm reasonably familiar with. In fact, I wrote a whole essay on the role trains have played throughout film history. Trains have always been a popular environment for many different kinds of movies, whether they appear in the form of a fast-moving stage for an action scene, a big chase, a claustrophobic setting, or even as characters themselves; trains have managed to captivate our imaginations in a variety of ways.
In the Silent Era, it was not so unusual to see movies depicting characters faced with train-related peril (I suspect this is where the association of the silent era with women tied to railroad tracks originated), mainly due to the fact that trains were the primary means of transportation in those days (not unlike the popularity of car chases in modern action films). However, even today trains continue to inspire and captivate viewers. There is just something about them that seems so impressive, that's probably also why so many playgrounds like to use train-based structures.
For this list, I've decided to try and find a variety of different train-themed movies to show just how varied they can be. I'm also trying to avoid the obvious ones. I suspect that Snowpiercer will probably be on several other lists so I will not be covering that one. I believe these three are not so likely to show up on anyone else's lists.
L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895)
What better way to look at the subject of train-based movies than to go right back to the beginning with a film that shows just how long cinema's fascination with trains extends? This was a short clip made by the Lumière brothers, who were among the earliest pioneers in filmmaking and among the first to exhibit their films in a theater. Their filmmaking style was fairly simple by today's standards; it consisted of pointing the camera and then letting it record as something happened. L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat is arguably the best known of their work. The "plot" is pretty much summed up by the title; a train arrives in a station, some people get on, and others get off. It's not exactly a riveting thrill ride, but it was extremely influential on later filmmakers.
The Londale Operator (1911)
This early film from D.W. Griffith (yes, the same D.W. Griffith who would later gain infamy for a certain 1915 feature film) is a very good example of the types of early train-chase films that were being made in the silent era. Instead of a specific train-related peril, the danger is in a train station that is being robbed by two crooks, and tension coming from the protagonist trying to alert another station of the danger while her heroic engineer lover races to her rescue. Part of the fun here is that despite that premise, the heroine is anything but a damsel in distress; in fact she might just be one of cinema's first major action heroines given she ends up rescuing herself and in the end all the men have to actually do is take the crooks away.
Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000)
Now for a movie that was responsible for mutilating and destroying my childhood. Thomas the Tank Engine was a show I loved as a kid, but this movie brought an end to the wonderful kids' show I had known and made way for the atrocious computer generated incarnation of the show that continues today. A lot of the problems with the movie have more to do with studio interference than any fault of the show's original creator Britt Allcroft (who also directed), which includes among other things being forced to remove all footage of what would have been the central villain (he was considered "too scary" for younger audiences) and some weird alterations such as making the Island of Sodor a separate universe instead of a fictional British island. It also features an evil diesel train with a claw for some reason, and Alec Baldwin playing a magical dimension hopping conductor (seriously).