To oversimplify wildly and for my own purposes, directors have been fascinated by trains because they represent both a microcosm of everyday social relations and a complete departure from the everyday. These seemingly contradictory understandings have generated a huge number of films about trains. I thought that I would share my thoughts about a few of my favorites, breaking them down into the random categories of Sex, Crime, Childhood, and Best Films Ever.
Sex — So…the erotic possibilities of trains. I’ve already blathered on about Some Like It Hot and North by Northwest. One of my other favorite train films is The Lady Eve (1941). There’s a hilarious wedding-night scene in which Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington makes a lengthy, fake confession of all her past lovers to Henry Fonda’s somewhat clueless Charles Pike, heir to a beer fortune.
He’s terribly stressed out by her speech, and the frantic passage of the train through the tunnel, which punctuates her performance and his reaction, playfully mirrors the wedding-night sex that they are absolutely not having. Of course, this reminds me of the classic shot of the train going into a tunnel in The Naked Gun (1988). And while I am on the subject of eighties films, it’s worth noting that the 1987 Throw Momma from the Train with Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal is a pretty funny spoof of Strangers on a Train (“Criss-cross!”). But for me, no eighties train film compares to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (also 1987) with the great Steve Martin and John Candy.
Martin’s Odysean journey home for Thanksgiving is thwarted at every turn, and he ends up at the mercy of Candy’s overly-friendly shower ring salesman. Their flight is cancelled; their train breaks down. They end up on bus, the worst possible mode of transportation. (One of my friends once sat on a Greyhound bus and watched a woman eat a bucket of chicken wings and toss the bones, one by one, into the aisle.) They run out of money, and Candy sells his shower ring samples as valuable pieces of jewelry in a Chaucerian false-relic turn. But there’s one moment in the film that comes to mind with regards to sex and travel. Forced to share a motel room bed, the men wake up in a compromised position: Candy is spooning Martin, Martin is holding Candy’s hand, and Candy’s hand is cradled between the “two pillows” that turn out to be Martin’s thighs. They freak out, start jumping around the room, and immediately reassert their status as straight by talking about professional sports. Yes, it’s a classic scene of homosexual panic – and boy, oh boy, did eighties comedies love those – but it’s also a clever voiding out of the amorous possibilities of train travel. These guys are both married, and they get stuck with one another. There’s no Eve Kendall in sight.
Crime – If you don’t get laid on a train, you’ll probably get killed. Hitchcock loved trains, and my favorite of his train films is The Lady Vanishes (1938). The film opens at a train station. The train is trapped in the snow, and the travelers are restless. The inn where they are all staying has run out of food. Not a good situation. I was happy to avoid such a scenario.
Once on the train, Margaret Lockwood’s Iris Henderson meets an elderly woman named Miss Froy who says she’s a governess but turns out to be – oh, yes – a spy. The poor lady disappears, no one remembers her, and Iris enlists a handsome traveling companion Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to investigate the situation with her. This film suggests two things: first, that there’s nothing better for a blossoming romance than a mystery, and second, that rather normal-looking little old ladies are probably working for queen and country. Oh, and don’t forget the uncanny resemblance between the sound of a train whistle and a human scream. It’s downright haunting. This disappearing-woman thing recurs in season four of The Golden Girls, in which the lovely ladies are on a train to St. Olaf. Rose starts telling a story about how people disappear in the tunnel they are about to go through, and when the train goes into the tunnel and everything goes black, Sofia disappears. It turns out that she just went to the bathroom, but those ladies are always getting into such shenanigans. That’s what you do when you are retired.
Childhood – I have fond memories of a number of train movies I saw as a kid, and they kept popping into my head as I made my trip to Denver. I should start with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) which features Pee-wee sitting in an old Depression-era cargo car, dangling his legs over the edge, and singing “She’ll be wearing pink pajamas when she comes…” with a hobo. The hobo is played by Patrick Cranshaw, who has played every old man role in every film ever made (including the one who dies wrestling in a Jello-and-breast soup in Old School). Sadly, this singing session proves unbearable, and Pee-wee flings himself from the train. I was never sure what to make of this as a kid. In fact, I still have no idea what to make of it. Paul Reubens was too sophisticated for me.
I was also obsessed with The Journey of Natty Gann (1985). Nattie runs away from a terrible life in 1930s Chicago and sets out on a train to find her lumberjack father in the Pacific Northwest. And she has a wolf as a pet for God’s sake. The message of this film seemed pretty clear to me as a young teenager: if there’s a train a-comin’ through your town, you can hop on it and find the young John Cusack. His character in this movie was one of my formative crushes, along with Dr. Fleishman from Northern Exposure.
And then there is Stand by Me (1986). I remember watching the boys walk along the train tracks in Oregon, in search of the missing kid. And unlike Stephen King’s other novels, there turns out to be no great mystery here at all – just the sad realization that the poor kid was hit by the train. Ah, the banality of death. But then, in happier news, an older River Phoenix reappears as the young Indiana Jones on the top of a train in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), a film that taught me that all that glitters is not gold and that sometimes Nazis are dangerously hot.
Lastly, I must mention a fabulous claymation train. Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers (1993) is notable for containing a penguin that is up to no good – is an evil penguin even possible? – and a fabulous toy train sequence. (Incidentally, this scene always makes me think of the line “If they didn’t have the model trains, they wouldn’t have gotten the idea for the big trains” from the 2003 A Mighty Wind.) In this mock-Western scene, the evil penguin (it’s so hard to say that) has a pistol and a bag of stolen loot. Gromit does the classic switching-over-the-tracks thing to reroute the penguin and then edges up the top of the train, Bond-style, towards the penguin criminal. All this time, Wallace is running alongside them in his very complicated electronic trousers (don’t worry about it). Then that sneaky penguin detaches his car! – It’s all very The Lady Vanishes. And as the piece de resistance, Gromit is forced to do the whole laying-the-track-before-the-train-is-coming move alongside the penguin’s track, which he executes with the savoir-faire of an intelligent domesticated pet. He saves the day, and the penguin is locked up…in the zoo. Not a very zoo-loving short film, but very train-loving — and very cheese-loving. As Wallace says in the closing moments, “I could fancy some cheese, Gromit…All’s well that ends well, that’s what I say…I do like a bit of gorgonzola.”
Best Movies Ever – Three of my favorite movies feature trains and train travel. Maybe this means that my present train obsession has been building for some time. Out of Africa (1985) opens with a wide shot of a train carrying Karen Blixen (and her china) to her new home in Kenya. I’ve always wanted to be Karen Blixen, but perhaps ever so slightly less colonial. But to write all day and run a farm and then entertain guests in the evenings: that seemed just about right to me. And she was so nostalgic – she was all about nostalgia. I also love the book, in which she looks back on her years in Africa from a Wordsworthian emotional distance. She recounts her travel between Denmark and Africa by ocean liner and train, and a train takes her away when she has to return to Europe for treatment for syphilis. Her husband was a bit of a dirty dog, but that’s what you get when you marry a Danish aristocrat who has whored away his fortune.
In Days of Heaven (1978), a train carries itinerant workers from farm to farm, including the young Sam Shepard’s farm, which looks like the house in Psycho. The child narrator provides her perspective on these journeys in a voice that is simultaneously flat and infused with affect. And like the wheat thrashers, the train is a beast of a machine that disrupts the natural landscape, unsettling the critters that hide in the long grass. I’ve said before that Days of Heaven is the best film ever made, and I’ll say it again. It’s a hyperbolic statement, but what would we do without such statements? I saw Sam Shepard on the street in New York a few months ago, and I really wanted to tell him this and to add that Baby Boom is the second best film ever made, but I didn’t.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) has one of the best triangulations of desire in film; it also has some great train scenes as the gang repeatedly hits the Union Pacific Flyer. Butch, Sundance, and Sundance’s “teacher-lady” also take the train to Bolivia in a very classy journey that is recounted in a montage of still photographs, much like the final freeze-frame of the film. Katherine Ross has some great hats for the trip, and the three seem to be always eating and drinking on trains and in saloons. When they arrive at the rather run-down train station, an irritated Sundance declares it to be the garden spot of all of Bolivia. The characters move through wide-open space on trains, on horseback, and on foot, both free and, eventually, pursued. Certainly, the film is about nostalgia and an American past that has already been converted into myth. It opens in a sepia tone and then shifts into more modern color, and it ends with a return to the sepia tone, enshrining the doomed heroes in Western history and fantasy.