Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Trains Magazine: 100 Greatest Train Movies

When I found out that Trains magazine had a special issue the 100 Greatest Train Movies, I went to Barnes & Noble to pick it up.

I love trains and I love lists. I like to see trains, I like to think about them, I like to sing along to songs about them. But I’m a piker compared to the readers and editors of this magazine. Their devotion is deep into detail. Sadly, I fall short of that obsession. But I admire it.

Lists are great. I consider High Fidelity the best British Novel of the last 20 years. The movie is okay, but the lists are sort of de-emphasized on the big screen. But even that fictional list doesn’t go as far as some great list magazines—like the Guitarist’s 100 greatest guitar players or the Rolling Stone greatest rock albums—actually, they’ve done a few around this theme, all worthwhile. Lists make you revaluate what you like, reconsider stuff you don’t like as much. Lists challenge your opinion and you should never take your opinion for granted. Lists also tend to be great examples of economy of language. By their very nature, lists require few words. For magazines of course, you just can’t list a name—you have to sum up the subject and show why you feel the entry is list worthy and why you have given the entry the specific rank on the list. It’s actually a lot of points to make and because of the format, you only have a sentence or two. Lists in magazines show off why editing can be essential to writing.

Although well-written and well-edited, the train list thankfully isn’t as economical language wise as other list pubs. It is not a section of a regular edition, it’s an entire magazine devoted to trains on film and many of the films are foreign and/or silent, thus unfamiliar to the casual reader. Damn, some are unfamiliar to all but the most obsessive film archivist. So, instead of a coupe of sentences, there are a few paragraphs for each entry. This issue is one of the best written magazines I’ve ever seen.

Instead of their usual rail road journalists appearing in the regular issues of Trains, the writer here is a Film journalist & film scholar, John Farr, who really nicely encapsulates each one of these films. Illustrations are stills from these classic films. I’ve scanned a few here. They look so damn cool. The magazine’s editorial staff add pop up factoids filled with train-oriented trivia. Farr writes about the importance of the films he selects, in terms of film history, popular culture as well as the expected movie criteria—screenwriting, directing, cinematography, etc. The pop ups are filled with train geek trivia that fascinates: “Grant and Saint’s Pullman Sleeper, Imperial State, was an actual car in the Century’s equipment pool. Pullman standard built nine cars in the Imperial Series in 1938-39...”

That piece of Pullman history is relevant for the #2 Greatest Railroad Movie, North by Northwest. Train movies are broadly defined here and include any movie apparently where a train has a major scene, not just movies about Trains, like The Taking of Pelham One, Two Three—the original--#19. Yes, Subways are trains.

I was first surprised to see La Bete Humaine at #5, but at least it ranked above The General—#8. I have nothing against Buster Keaton, and I first saw this film in a High School film class. I have seen it since, and while the train footage is always entertaining, it is a dopey film and Keaton’s slapstick hasn’t aged well. It just isn’t that funny any more. The fact that it wasn’t listed #1—it would have been the obvious choice and it’s considered such a classic, who could dispute the ranking—is probably the best indication this list has uncommon intelligence and integrity.

Now, I happen to own on DVD, La Bete Humaine and it’s a masterpiece, one of Renoir’s best. Of course, it is based on the novel of the same name by Emile Zola. Zola is one of my favorite novelists (that’s another list) and this was one of his best novels—again, another list. And of course, since this is a literary masterpiece, the novel is far better than the film. The film though—which takes place in the early 20th century, instead of the mid-19th century France that Zola wrote about—details the experience of the train engineer, black and white of course and simply true cinematic beauty. A side note, Therese Raquin, a 1953 film, is #71 and is of course, also a Zola novel.

Number one? What is the Greatest Train Movie of all time? The Train, a 1964 film, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster. I had never heard of it and of course, I picked it up within a day or two of getting the magazine. I’ve always liked Frankheimer and I probably could even like a bad Train movie. The writing was so persuasive and convincing: “The action quotient is indeed high—witness the unforgettable scene of the rapidly advancing art train colliding into a derailed steam locomotive..”

Well, it was easy enough to find and Gosh darnit, Farr is spot on. I might rank La Bete Humaine above North by Northwest (I’ve always felt Hitchcock was over-rated), but The Train is not just, without question, the best train movie ever made, I would still rank it as one of the best action films I’ve ever seen. The Train makes me wish for a number higher than #1! World War II, occupied France, the allies are advancing and the Nazis are in retreat. A German officer, played superbly by Paul Scolfied—A Man For All Seasons—wants to ship by train all the great Art of France—Degas, Monet, Picasso, Renoir. Lancaster is a rail road man, works for the Nazi’s but in secret is part of the French Resistance and he sabotages the Art Train. It’s not easy. What an exciting film. Lancaster did all his own stunts and is fascinating to watch—really great physical acting—he eludes the Germans, engineers a steam locomotive, runs around the various train stations. In one scene, Lancaster has to escape from a Spitfire strafing the rail road tracks and takes the locomotive into a tunnel. Yes, a plane firing machine guns at a Steam Locomotive. Awe-friggin-some!

The aforementioned collision is spectacular—what’s better than a train crash. Anyone who has ever been around an electric model train set—I have—knows that sooner or later, you start crashing the dang things. This film blows big things up real good! Oh, the humanity! Derailments, explosions. To save the art, they fool the Germans by running the Art Train around Paris. They deceive the Nazi’s into thinking they’re heading towards Germany. Beautifully filmed, in black and white and even though it’s one of those WW II movies were it’s all in English, I believed every minute. I’ve watched it three times in a row and will probably watch it again tonight. Simply, a great film.

Some choices are questionable. Bad Day at Black Rock—#94 has a train in the beginning and the end, that’s it, does that make it a train movie? It is a great movie, Spencer Tracy is handicapped, comes by train to small town, and has to deal with a gang of racists that include Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as he investigates the death of the man they murdered. A stranger in a strange land and when he leaves order has been restored. Why is it a train movie? The metaphor—trains carry strangers and some strangers change your life forever. Or is it that this small town has nothing else going for it besides being a stop on the railroad? But if that’s the criteria, why not Double Indemnity where the train is central to the murder that drives the plot, or why not Kevin Smith’s marvelous Dogma, where nearly the entire second act takes place on Amtrak. But see, that’s the purpose of lists. Lists proclaim—“let the argument begin!” That argument can be about what is excluded almost as much as it is about what is included.

While films specifically about trains—like The Train—seem to get special notice, Farr is inclined towards great films, like Bad Day at Black Rock, or film history. Box Car Bertha—#86—I scanned a still because it is so sexy and what a great title for a film. It’s the first movie by Martin Scorsese. John Cassavettes told him after he screened the film, “you’ve made a piece of shit, now go make a film.” Seriously, it’s unwatchable but dang, the still picture and the factoids—“The Great Mountains Railroad in North Carolina acquired the 2-8-0 in 1996; it has been out of service since 2004.”—makes me want to see the film again, even though I know it still sucks

At #70, one of the few documentaries listed, was The Festival Express, a pretty good concert film and some great footage of Jerry Garcia jamming on a train. There are several films I’ve wanted to see, such as Runaway Train #12, some I’ve sort of knew about and now want to see, like Brief Encounter #7, some I’ve seen but didn’t think of them as being list-worthy, like Santa Fe #85 (it stars Randolph Scott) and is a pretty lukewarm western, and of course, movies I just don’t care about, like Slum Dog Millionaire #36, even though “the railway scenes were shot at the Chatrapati Shivja Terminus... it was one of the sites of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.” Look, I know everybody likes this movie and maybe I’ll catch up with it, but a movie about a TV game show doesn’t interest me enough for me to make an effort.

Anyway, what a brilliant, well done magazine. In my opinion, the two greatest train movies—and I’m defining train movies as movies about trains and the men who run them—are based on a great French novel or takes place in World War II France. The Train is dedicated to the railroad workers of France! How come Hollywood or Independent Film Makers have not made an AMTRAK movie. The people who work for AMTRAK love their jobs. I love taking AMTRAK. How about a film about women who work for the rail road. That is a job with a lot of conflict and would make for a compelling character. AMTRAK deserves its The Train or La Bete Humaine!



  1. I recommend "Ticket to Tomahawk"

  2. The General #1 and The Train #2 for me.

    Shocked that you didn't like The General. Keaton's films have aged extremely well, in my opinion. Did you see a good copy of The General (so many are horrendous looking public domain quality), with a good score (either Carl Davis or Robert Israel)? I think you should give it another shot.

    I think that while it IS a comedy, it is also many other things. I find it to be the best Civil war movie, the best chase movie, the best train movie, AND one of the finest comedies.

    1. Yes, The General is far the best train movie ever made, and one of the best - if not the very best - silent movies ever made, for sure :)