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Chris Hicks: Movies with real trains are on the right track

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 5:16 p.m. MDT

"Denver & Rio Grande" (1952) crashed two real trains head-on for its climax, as depicted at the top of this poster.

Paramount Pictures

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What makes trains so cinematically fascinating?

For me, it’s probably a reversion to my childhood when I had a Lionel train set and would watch it go around the track on the floor of my tiny bedroom for hours (I think my parents bought it as an incentive to keep my clothes off the floor.) And sometimes I’d make it go fast enough to jump the track. (What would Freud make of that?)

In the movies, trains always seem so much more inherently interesting than airline travel or road trips by car. Such as the railroad travel that figures so prominently in four of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films, “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and “North By Northwest” (1959), and trains are just as pivotal in two of the most popular comic riffs on Hitchcock, “Silver Streak” (1976) and “Throw Momma From the Train” (1987).

Locomotives also provide a lot of action in the classic film noir “The Narrow Margin” (1952, remade in 1990 with Gene Hackman), Disney’s “The Great Locomotive Chase” (1956, based on the same Civil War account used by Buster Keaton for “The General”), the Cinerama Western “How the West Was Won” (1962), the Depression-era melodrama “Emperor of the North” (1973), Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), the New York subway thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974, remade with Denzel Washington in 2009), the Charles Bronson Western “Breakheart Pass” (1976), the Sean Connery period caper “The Great Train Robbery” (1978) and Steven Seagal’s “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” (1995), among many others.

And even more than the clickety-clack of the railroad engines and cars that speed along the tracks or the confined spaces they provide or the chugging of a steam engine or the roar of a bullet train, there’s nothing quite like a spectacularly photographed train crash.

In real life, of course, a train that has jumped its tracks or been involved in some other kind of accident is one of the worst, most helpless kinds of tragedy. We’ve even adopted it into the vernacular. When something horrible that seems insurmountable occurs in our lives, or the lives of others, we refer to it as a “train wreck.” A person may also be referred to as a “train wreck,” if he or she seems to be an emotional mess, a metaphorical mass of twisted metal and almost irretrievable loss.

Yet, in a movie, there’s a strange fascination with a literal train wreck, especially when it’s staged in an especially sensational way.

There’s apparently going to be an underground train crash of some kind in the new James Bond movie, “Skyfall,” judging from a snippet in the trailer. And rumor has it there’s a train wreck in the new Johnny Depp version of “The Lone Ranger,” to be released next year.

In the very dark post-Civil War revenge yarn “Hell on Wheels,” an AMC cable series whose 10-episode first season was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, Episode 8, appropriately titled “Derailed,” depicts a train that has been sabotaged by a Cheyenne tribe threatened by the arrival of the “iron horse” on their land.

We don’t see the crash, only the aftermath, but it’s presented in a compelling way as the head of a company that is laying track for the first transcontinental railway returns from a trip to Chicago. When his train makes an unscheduled stop, he leaves his coach and walks toward the crash site as the camera slowly reveals from his viewpoint that an engine and several cars have left the track and plowed a furrow into the ground. There are bodies and debris all over and steam is rising from the engine, followed shortly by an explosion.

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