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Do The Locomotion: 22 Great Train Films

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 11, 2010 at 6:54AM

Films and trains: they go way back. Take the Lumière brothers' pioneering their new cinématographe invention in 1895 with “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” or 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” widely considered to be the foundation for all narrative cinema; it seems that back then, anyone holding a movie camera could think of nothing better to do with it than point it at a train. The two were, of course, born of similar mechanical, pre-electronic technology; cogs and spokes and sprockets keep a locomotive on its tracks, even as their tinier counterparts spool celluloid through a projector.
5

“Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” (1995)
Unremittingly awful from its opening frame until about three minutes from the end when, thanks to a bunch of huge explosions and some severed fingers, things briefly get interesting. “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” is really only remarkable for featuring one of the finest ensemble casts of C-list villain actors ever assembled: Eric Bogosian probably has the most name recognition of all of them (we are talking C-list), and yet you’ll recognize at least eight of the henchmen’s faces, spend the rest of the film wondering what you saw them in, and occasionally remembering. Which is good because it provides distraction from the tedious drivel on the screen: something to do with a spy satellite, a train full of hostages and blowing up the Eastern seaboard, but all Steven Seagal wants to do is be a chef, mourn his estranged brother and take care of his niece, who, in a stroke of casting genius, is supposed to be likable and yet is played by Katherine Heigl. Those who suggest it’s 'Die Hard on a train' have obviously never seen "Die Hard," or possibly any other film. [D]

“The Great Train Robbery” (1903)
Debatably the most famous silent film featuring trains (next to the Lumière's "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,") this was one of the most daring for its time, using several on-set locations, cross-cutting (two different locations at the same period of time), and selective coloring. The narrative is simple by today's standards, with a group of bandits hijacking and looting a train only to be gunned down by the law enforcement at the end. Let us not focus on some of the more dated elements (bombastic silent movie acting) or the homages other directors have done (Scorsese, Spielberg), but the many elements are not only great for its time, but are even accomplished by today's standards. Unlike many modern filmmakers, director Edwin Porter doesn't waste a second starting his film, shedding story title cards and beginning with the bandits holding up the station employee. After the excitement leaves the station, every subsequent scene (or shot, there's only one angle per scene) is skillfully blocked with fantastic frame arrangement, featuring some of the very first camera pans. One scene involving the bandits ordering everyone off the train is still one of the finest composed frames in cinema. As they file out and fill the entire top half of the frame, one makes a break for it and is immediately gunned down. It's honestly chilling, the entire scene is visually arresting and is a testament to Porter's artistry, a filmmaker easily forgotten aside from this gem. Other masterful scenes such as the town dance and the final shootout prove to be a lot more interesting than most sequences in modern Hollywood filmmaking (however pretentious that may sound), and it still holds the throne for the most badass last shot of all time. [A]

“Von Ryan’s Express” (1965)
Part WWII POW escape caper, part culture clash examination, Mark Robson’s 1965 film owes a great debt to the better regarded (and probably just better) “The Great Escape” (1963). Not that "Von Ryan's Express" is at all bad, actually it’s an entertaining and inventive film, with added interest derived from being set in famously-ambivalent-about-whose-side-it’s-on Italy. However, the personality clash plot line seems a little familiar -- dealing with the difference in command style between Frank Sinatra’s ranking American colonel, a pragmatist who will play nice with the camp commandant if it gets the other POWs decent food and clothing, and Trevor Howard as the British major who utterly believes, as do his men, that his first duty is to continue to try to escape no matter what privations result. That they eventually work together and earn each others’ respect should come as no surprise; in fact, to anyone who has seen “The Great Escape” (i.e. everyone) very little in 'VRE' comes as a surprise, except possibly the exciting extended train sequence which involves dressing a priest up as a Nazi, silently killing Germans atop moving carriages, and taking track from behind to lay in front, Wallace & Gromit-style. It’s a solid piece of work but in the end, even its affecting conclusion can’t escape the long shadow of its more famous predecessor. [B]

“The Train” (1964)
Words cannot express our gratitude to Tony Scott for making the film that inspired this list that in turn demanded we finally get around to watching this John Frankenheimer classic -- it’s an absolutely terrific film, and we are duly redfaced for not having seen it before. Shot in beautifully textured black and white, the story details a disheveled French train controller with ties to the Resistance (a completely committed, amazingly physical Burt Lancaster), who comes up against a ruthless Nazi (a blistering Paul Scofield) when the latter attempts to move a priceless trove of paintings to Germany in the Third Reich’s dwindling days just before the liberation of France. Touching (never glibly) on an array of fascinating subjects like the value of art vs. the value of life, the nature of obsession, and even the class struggle, the really impressive thing is the film never stops being a breathtaking adventure too (the screenplay by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis was Oscar-nominated). And then there’s the photography which attains a degree of realism rarely seen in WWII films -- maybe because they actually did everything for real; stunts were performed by the actors themselves (there’s a thrill to be had in watching Lancaster repair a coupling rod from scratch, or lay explosive, or operate levers and signals like an old hand and see that it’s actually him doing it), train collisions were achieved by colliding actual trains; everything about the railroad was practical and real and it shows. There are other stellar films on this list, to be sure, but make sure to seek this one out if you haven’t already -- if you’re anything like us, it’ll make your week. [A+]

This article is related to: Films, Feature


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