I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Coming By Train

by Kristen Bialik
April 2, 2012
Before there were stories, there was action. Motion. Occurrence. Before we could say where we came from, we had to show how we came. Perhaps this is too broad or even unfair. But it’s just to say that the best stories tell us of a journey or change. Travel is change. Change is motion. And from its earliest onset, film has had a special relationship with that rolling and rickety vehicle of change: the train.

Though a century separates the early experiments with steam locomotion and film capture, their histories are inextricably linked. A working model of a steam rail locomotive existed in the U.S. by steamboat pioneer John Fitch as early as the 1780s; and by 1804, British engineer Richard Trevithick was hauling the world’s first full-scale steam locomotive on a railway journey. By the time Edison revealed his moving picture Kinetoscope at the 1983 Chicago World Fair, the U.S. had built over 163 thousand miles of railway. Two years later, the Lumière brothers had created L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de La Ciotat, or The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Film had arrived, and it came by train.

If one goes by the myth (and I always go by the myth), the spectators at the famed public screening of L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de La Ciotat were so caught so off-guard by the sight of the train on film barreling toward them that they fled in panic. Whether the audience was that terrified or not, the legend remains that a 50-second silent film of a moving train astonished spectators with its magical realism. There were no explosions, no passionate kisses, and no epic fight scenes set to dramatic orchestral scores. There was just a steam train, rolling down the tracks.

And so began film’s love affair with the train. From the Lumiere brothers to present day, trains have been rumbling through our celluloid imaginations. Film history as we know it would be completely different without the locomotive. Don’t believe me? No trains, no Hitchcock! At least, not in the way his filmography exists today. The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion, Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, North By Northwest, and of course, Strangers on a Train all feature – you guessed it, trains! Without the iron horse, Robert Walker’s unctuous psychopath and Farley Grainger’s dashing playboy would have stayed strangers. Cary Grant would have never fled into the on-board flirtations of Eva Marie Saint, and the governess may have never mysteriously disappeared.  

Countless other filmmakers have laid the tracks for trains in their movies, and for all kinds of reasons. For a single vehicle, trains can take us to all kinds of places and take on all kinds of meanings. They’re a dynamic setting and handy narrative device. Without trains, there’d be no 3:10 to Yuma, no 88mph kick to the Delorean, and no mountain escape in Dr. Zhivago. And Lawrence of Arabia’s epic, guerilla attack on Turks? Forget about it.

Trains gave film a subject and a challenge to develop technique. Two decades after the Lumiere brothers captivated the world with their static shot of a train station, Edwin S. Porter had created The Great Train Robbery, a 12-minute Western and the world’s first real action movie that introduced crosscutting, double exposure, and shooting on location. Buster Keaton’s The General raised the bar for daredevil stunts everywhere with some of the most elaborate and expensive stunts during the silent film era. All six Tom Hanks could be seen in the live action performance capture/computer-animated The Polar Express, with 3-D trains actually flying right at the audience.

Just as they brought progress to film technique, trains themselves are representative of progress, industrialization, and the undeniable love affair between man and machine.  Cutting through the sweeping landscapes of John Ford movies were trains – in The Iron Horse, 3 Godfathers, The Quiet Man, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance. Steam trains cropped up in all kinds of Westerns as the tangible tension between intrigue with the iron horse and loyalty to the old mare. They stretch across new territories, connect countries, and exist between towns and stations in a world all their own.

Trains can be the ultimate escape or the ultimate confinement. Traveling on pre-laid tracks to a predetermined destination with no way of turning back, movement by train is, in a sense, fatalistic – and at times fatal. No genre shows this distinction more sharply than war films. Frank Sinatra may have led the America, train-trapped POWs to escape in Von Ryan’s Express, but all sides are steam-powered in war. From Schindler’s List to Shoah, trains tracks formed their own slats and bars, consigning those aboard to a gut-wrenching fate. Trains pose a threat and a danger, a speeding mass rocketing down infinite tracks.

Steam trains themselves were surprisingly fast and powerful for early machines. As the Steam Trains collection will tell you, some of the old steam giants were capable of moving 15,000 tons of coal with 100 cars over 100 miles – and in less than 4 hours. Like film, practice brought progress, experimentation, and innovation. Since steam, the world has seen diesel, hybrid, electric, and fuel cell-electric locomotives. Trains today have reached speeds of over 350 mph, enough to blast the Delorean out of the Wild West and out of this world entirely.

Yes, trains today are faster and sleeker. Film today has computers, CGI, and Bruce Lee under its belt to amp up action. These changes have brought with them certain expectations that static shots of trains rolling through the countryside can’t always meet. But that’s what’s so damn delightful about the Steam Trains collection, despite its slow to stagnant pace. It believes so deeply in the inherent awe-inspiring drama of a steam train’s silhouette. Lines like “What could possibly be more dramatic than double-headed big boys and challengers?” reveal the narrator is still endearingly and completely sold on the locomotive’s intensity.  In a way, the collection goes back to film’s earliest roots. There is no climax. There may be a narrator, but there’s no narrative arch, no real “story” at all. It all boils down to unseen combustion, a flame, the grinding of pistons and magically, unbelievably – motion.

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.