10 Great Movies set on a Train: We’ve come a long way since Auguste and Louis Lumière screened L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896) which, as the title describes, featured a train pulling into a station. Going by the rumors, back then people were thrilled, chilled, and shocked by the mere moving image of a train. But now, movies involving trains have to do more in order to engage the audience. That doesn’t mean that more is always better, as proven by the recently released Bullet Train (2022) which packed everything into the film and ended up being boring. So, today we are here to talk about movies that did do it right. Mind you, the films in this list don’t just have a scene on a train. They are primarily set in it. And it has some very obvious choices and some oddball ones that usually don’t show up in lists about movies set on a train.
1. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and based on Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins (1936), this film follows Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) as she returns home to get married after vacationing with her friends in the fictional country of Bandrika. But she has to spend an extra night at the hotel she’s in because an avalanche has blocked the railway line. That’s when she comes across her neighbor, Miss Froy (May Whitty), and a street-smart ethnomusicologist, Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave). However, things start to seem off as a folk singer is strangled to death and Iris is hit on the head by a large planter before getting on the train. That said, things truly hit the fan when Miss Froy goes missing and everyone keeps telling Iris that she never existed.
The best thing about the narrative is that, not even in your wildest dreams, can you imagine where the movie is going to go? You are constantly distracted from the mission at hand (which is finding Miss Froy) with a myriad of elements that don’t seem to be connected on the surface. But as you go deeper and deeper into the run-time, the most arbitrary plot threads peppered throughout the locomotive start to connect and the end result is nothing short of mind-blowing. Hitchcock’s confident direction and Gilliat and Launder’s airtight script certainly make for a fun, suspenseful, and thrilling viewing experience. However, to be honest, a large chunk of the credit for the movie’s entertainment factor goes to the cast; especially Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. The chemistry between them is electric and their screen presence is mesmerizing.
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2. Terror by Night (1946)
Directed by Roy William Neill and written by Frank Gruber, this film limits Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) to a train that is on its way to Scotland. No, they are obviously not going on a vacation. They’ve been hired by Roland (Geoffrey Steele) for a case. What’s the case you ask? Well, Roland’s mother, Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes) is the owner of the famous Star of Rhodesia diamond and she’s afraid that it might be stolen on the way to Scotland. Hence, she has taken measures to a) keep the diamond safe and b) find the thief in case someone steals it. Lady Margaret’s suspicions are proven right as, in mere minutes of starting the journey, not only is the diamond allegedly stone but also her son is murdered. So, Holmes and Watson are tasked with retrieving the diamond and finding the killer.
Look, I am a sucker for a Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson adventure; especially Basil Rathbone’s version after watching him in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). Every generation has its very own Sherlock. Mine’s obviously Benedict Cumberbatch. But, if we are all being honest, once you see Basil Rathbone in action, every iteration sort of starts to pale in comparison. The man is perfect. Coming to the movie itself, yes, it is incredibly interesting. There are so many characters for Holmes and Watson to interact with and the interactions range from hilarious to action-packed. Dennis Hoey steals the show as the walking meme that is Inspector Lestrade. Additionally, the plot (which is mostly original BTW) has a couple of twists that will spin your head like a top and make you think that this is indeed a mystery that only Sherlock Holmes can solve.
3. The Narrow Margin (1952)
Directed by Richard Fleischer, written by Earl Felton, and based on Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard’s story, this American film noir follows Det. Sgt. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and his partner Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) on a dangerous assignment. They’ve to protect a mob boss’s widow, Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), as she travels from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify before a grand jury. And she’s carrying a payoff list that belonged to her husband. This means that the mob’s hitmen are after her and want to kill her. Things get serious from the start as Forbes is killed, leaving Brown to protect Neall and fend for himself. He tries his best to lose his tail before getting on the train. But he fails and the assassins board; thereby starting a battle of wits and brawn.
Credit where credit is due, my mother brought this film to my attention. Actually, it wasn’t this one but the 1990 remake by Peter Hyams and starring Gene Hackman and Anne Archer. But I couldn’t get my hands on the remake. So, I went for the original, which is a deceptively simple film and yet, is a meaningful dissection of perception. So, from the get-go, Brown is shown to be a very judgemental person. He is sexist, classist, and emotional; three things you definitely shouldn’t be if you are in the detective business. He has an incredibly coarse relationship with Neall. And he’s, obviously, very frazzled by the events happening around him. However, every step of the way, his viewpoint is questioned and subsequently subverted. That understandably humbles him and helps him realize the gravity of the situation he’s in. We need more movies like this!
4. Nayak (1966)
Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), this Satyajit Ray classic follows a famous actor from the Bengali film industry, Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) who is traveling to Delhi to receive a prestigious award. He reveals that he isn’t actually all that interested in the award. He is using this invitation to get away from the controversy that’s on its way. Arindam does manage to avoid the consequences of getting into a brawl. But he walks into a train full of people who recognize him. Some of them are understandably dazzled by his persona. However, Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore), the editor of a modern women’s magazine called Adhunika, is filled with contempt for the likes of Arindam. So, she intends to interview him and reveal his truth to the public; thereby bringing the star’s era to an end.
What do you want me to say about this masterpiece that hasn’t been said already? Nowadays, we laud everything that is mildly self-referential as a meta piece of commentary. But this is 1966 we are talking about. This is Uttam Kumar we are talking about. Satyajit Ray forces this man to bare himself in front of everyone to see, melting real and reel into a surreal and yet, painfully realistic train journey. Although, as Hitchcock likes to call it, there is no bomb under the table, the movie has a sense of urgency to it. By the time the journey ends, Arindam has to come to terms with his vices or lose himself forever. Uttam Kumar steals the show, fair and square. This is probably his career-best performance. And after delivering memorable performances in Apur Sansar (1959) and Devi (1960), Sharmila knocks it out of the park again.
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5. Horror Express (1972)
Directed by Eugenio Martín and written by Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet, this film is set in 1906 and set inside the European-bound Trans-Siberian Railway train. But that’s not where the movie begins. In the first scene, we see Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) unearthing the frozen remains of a primitive humanoid that was buried in a cave in Manchuria. While loading it into the cargo compartment, a thief tries to steal it and he dies in a very unnatural fashion. This attracts the attention of Saxton’s friendly rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), an Eastern Orthodox monk named Father Pujardoc (Alberto de Mendoza), and Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña). Wells even bribes a porter to investigate the crate. And it’s revealed that the humanoid is alive and roaming around the moving train, killing anyone who crosses its path and stares into its glowing red eyes.
It’s a movie that features Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Argentinian film legend Alberto de Mendoza) and a monster with limitless powers in a train. What else can you possibly ask from a movie? Technically, nothing else. But it does. In the third act of the film, absolutely out of nowhere, Telly Savalas (known for his work in Kojak, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Battle of the Bulge, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, and MacKenna’s Gold) shows up as Captain Kazan. And, as expected, he hijacks the entire film for a sum total of 10-15 minutes. After that, the main plot kicks back in, yes. However, his appearance takes the already bonkers film to the next film. I’d like to say that this should happen more often in modern films. I won’t though because it’ll only encourage directors to do obnoxious cameos. Anyway, Horror Express is awesome. Please, watch it.
6. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Helmed by one of my favorite directors, Sidney Lumet, this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel follows the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot who is on his way to London on the Orient Express from Istanbul. That’s where he encounters his old friend Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam). Other passengers include Mr.s Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), Countess Helena Andrenyi (Jacqueline Bisset), Pierre Paul Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Col. Arbuthnott (Sean Connery), Edward Beddoes (John Gielgud), Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts), Hecto McQueen (Anthony Perkins), Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), Princess Natalia (Wendy Hiller), Ratchett (Richard Widmark) and Count Rudolf (Michael York). Out of them, Ratchett approaches Poirot to hire him as his bodyguard since he has received many death threats. Poirot refuses but stays wary. After the train is stopped by a snowdrift, Ratchett is found stabbed to death. This springs Poirot into action and everyone is a suspect for him.
I think whenever the topic of an all-star cast inside a train comes up (and it has come up a few times after the release of Bullet Train), Murder on the Orient Express is undeniably the first name that pops up in my mind. The film is gushing with brilliant performances, masterful editing, searing hot dialogue-writing, exquisite production design, and simply the best directorial choices of all time. The plot itself is very deceptive but Poirot holds your hand and leads you steadily into the thick of the mystery. Understandably, Bergman won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Finney won the Best Award. And it is well-deserved. But, to be honest, Sean Connery is the scene stealer here. As soon as he starts speaking and gets into his groove, his energy low-key eclipses everyone else’s. Last but not least, the final twist is worthy of all the applause in the world.
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7. Silver Streak (1976)
Directed by Arthur Hiller and written by Colin Higgins, this comedy thriller follows a book editor named George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) who boards the titular train and unintentionally befriends vitamin salesman Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty). Now, Sweet comes off as a total sleazebag as he tries to get cozy with Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh), secretary to a Rembrandt historian, Professor Schreiner (Stefan Gierasch). Burns gives Sweet a taste of his own medicine. Later she befriends Caldwell, especially since they are neighbors on the train, and spark a romantic relationship. But, just when things start to heat up, Caldwell witnesses the murder of Schreiner. The next day, he tries to warn Hilly and then proceeds to look into the case. He comes across Edgar (Ray Walston) who directs his henchman Reece (Richard Kiel) to throw Caldwell out of the train because he’s getting too close to the truth.
The first thing I said as soon as the credits roll is that this is one of the most bizarre movies in the best and the worst ways possible. It’s bizarrely amazing because it’s Gene Wilder, for crying out loud. The man is so charismatic, so funny, and so energetic that you could throw him into the blandest scenario possible and he’d light it up instantly. And this is a moving train with an international conspiracy jumping from one compartment to another. The running joke in the film is that Caldwell repeatedly falls out of the train. But he has to get back in there and not only save Hilly but also bring the conspiracy to light. That’s where the bizarrely bad stuff comes in the form of blackface. That’s kind of eclipsed by the apparent subversion of that racist gag, Richard Pryor’s presence, and the off-the-rails climax.
8. The Burning Train (1980)
Yes, it’s a remake of The Bullet Train (1975). But the Junya Satō film wasn’t nearly as influential in my life as this Ravi Chopra remake. Hence, here we are. We follow Ashok (Dharmendra), Vinod (Vinod Khanna), and Randhir (Danny Denzongpa) as they go from being childhood friends to jilted rivals. Ashok is the son of multi-millionaire Seth Dharmdas (Madan Puri) while Vinod and Randhir are engineers at the Indian Railway Board. Randhir and Vinod have a falling out after Vinod marries the girl Randhir loves, i.e. Sheetal (Parveen Babi), and gets the green light to make the fastest train in India. Ashok goes bankrupt after the death of his father, which leads to his break-up with Seema (Hema Malini). Years go by. Ashok goes into a depressive state. Vinod leaves his family behind to achieve his dreams of making the Super Express. And Randhir, out of malice, decides to blow up that train on its maiden journey.
I know, that’s a lot of set-up and Chopra spends a lot of time in the lives of these three characters before getting into the train. But once the train starts chugging forward, there is literally no looking back. Also, if you think Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Danny Denzongpa, and Parveen Babi being in the same movie is a big deal, wait till you find out that Jeetendra, Neetu Singh Kapoor, Navin Nischol, Iftekhar, Mac Mohan, Asrani, and many more familiar faces are in here. So, in addition to being a supremely crafted film that’s bubbling with sincerity, and has a not-so-subtle commentary about secularism in India, it’s an example of what a Bollywood movie can be. Nowadays, every Bollywood movie needs to have everything in it and all of it rests on the shoulders of one star. We’ve all this talk about reviving the magic of Bollywood and yet, no one’s trying to emulate the thrill that The Burning Train provided.
9. Source Code (2011)
Directed by Duncan Jones and written by Ben Ripley, this sci-fi action thriller puts U.S. Army Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) in an eight-minute digital recreation of a real-life train explosion. What’s his task? As per Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), Stevens has to find out who caused the train explosion so that they can figure out who is going to do a second attack in Chicago. Where’s Colter though? Well, according to him, he was flying a mission in Afghanistan. But now he appears to be a container of sorts, which he can’t escape. And despite having no connection to any part of the container, he doesn’t have any control over when he’s going to be pushed into the train hurtling towards its imminent demise.
This is technically a train movie because there is no train. But what’s real and what’s virtual in a movie, am I right? Anyway, Source Code is like a mixture of Groundhog Day (1993), The Matrix (1999), and any of the aforementioned movies. It’s infinitely mind-boggling and it doesn’t matter how many times you watch it, one of the many twists gets you by surprise. Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic in the film. The range of emotions that this guy puts on the screen is truly jaw-dropping. Michelle Monaghan proves for the umpteenth time that she is one of the most under-appreciated actresses in the sci-fi action genre. Seriously, she should’ve had a more prominent role in the Mission: Impossible franchise. The cinematography by Don Burgess, editing by Paul Hirsch, and the music by Chris Bacon (which is very Michael Giacchino-esque in nature) are top-notch.
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10. Train to Busan (2016)
Co-written and directed by Yeon Sang-ho, along with co-writer Park Joo-suk, this modern classic follows fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) as they travel to Busan to spend her birthday with her mother. But wait, there’s a zombie apocalypse unfolding in Seoul. And right as the father-daughter duo board the train, an ill young woman stumbles in unnoticed. She eventually turns into a zombie and begins the infection; thereby turning the entire train into a hot mess. As the number of zombies increases, Seok-woo and Su-an, along with the surviving passengers, keep moving from one compartment to another until they reach the next stop. However, when they get there, they realize that this is a country-wide issue and they can only survive if they stay inside that train and continue moving forward.
It is one of my favorite movies of all time. Not just because of the zombie action, which BTW is terrific. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to make a boring zombie movie when Train to Busan literally exists. No, not even Yeon Sang-ho (I am sorry, Peninsula wasn’t very good). The reason why Train to Busan feels so timeless is because of its universal commentary on human nature in the face of a very obvious disaster. Despite moving forward at great speeds, the movie manages to talk about classism, love, and above all, sacrifice. The transformation that Seok-woo goes through is such a great example of beautiful writing. Yes, there are more self-centered people than him on the train. And we see what happens to them because they are not open to changing their core beliefs. The performances from the cast are amazing. Ma Dong-seok’s fists deserve their own award.