On the Right Track: Going Loco for Steam Trains in the Movies

[An abridged version of the following piece appeared in 88 Films’ Limited Edition Blu-ray release of Terror Train (1980), issued November 2019.]


y love affair with locomotives began around the age of two. Picture the scene: a railway bridge shrouded in fog . . . the cry of an owl from afar . . . synth music straight out of a John Carpenter film . . . then, the malevolent whoosh! of a train as it crosses the bridge, gliding through the night like a steam-powered spectre. At the risk of embarrassing myself, I’ll admit that I have been haunted by this hair-raising moment for the best part of thirty years—and that it comes from an episode of kids TV series Thomas the Tank Engine. Yes, just like every other preschooler in the Eighties, I was fanatical about that cheeky talking steam train and the rainbow-tinted universe he inhabited. The aforementioned nightmare fuel may well have kept me awake come bedtime, but I’ve been enraptured by railways ever since.

As a means of transporting us from one place to another, trains have held an intrinsic connection with the magic of movies since 1896, when French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière unleashed The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station upon a startled public. Legend has it that the minute-long piece of film, one of the earliest in existence, sent panic-stricken patrons darting from their seats during its premiere. A tad melodramatic, perhaps, but it’s a plausible enough scenario: the vision of a life-sized vehicle hurtling toward—and potentially off—the screen must have appeared to unaccustomed eyes like the stuff of witchcraft. The Victorian equivalent of Avatar, basically. It is safe to assume that audiences today would be a great deal less perturbed by the Lumières’ creation; we are, after all, more au fait with the mechanics of cinema. Yet the steam train, as archaic and near-obsolete a method of transport it now may be, remains an invaluable source of inspiration to storytellers (can you envisage the Harry Potter franchise without it? Nope, didn’t think so). Meanwhile, viewers of all ages continue to sit back and marvel at the sheer imposing majesty of these ironclad monsters.

Rail journeys scream adventure. To step aboard a train is to enter a new realm, a space filled with intrigue, excitement and uncertainty; think Lucy wandering through the wardrobe into Narnia, or Dorthy arriving in Oz. American film pioneer Edwin S. Porter was among the very first artists to recognise—and exploit—the exhilarating characteristics of train travel with 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, a twelve-minute tour de force in which a group of bandits stage a violent hold-up. Groundbreaking both in concept and execution, the film’s deployment of avant-garde techniques such as cross-cutting and on-location shooting put silent movies on the map at the turn of the twentieth century. Steam trains were now so much more than just emblems of industrial progress. They had arrived as a form of rip-roaring entertainment.

Next stop, the 1930s: the Golden Age of crime literature, when writers such as Agatha Christie were busy weaving sly commentary on socially pertinent themes such as class, status and wealth into hard-boiled whodunit mysteries—several of which (Murder on the Orient Express chief among them) saw fit to employ the stuffy confines of train carriages as shrewd narrative springboards. Never one to shy away from a recipe for success, it wasn’t long before Alfred Hitchcock got his masterful mitts on the formula; first with The Lady Vanishes (1938), a playful thriller backdropped by the looming shadow of the Second World War, in which an elderly woman goes missing on a train headed for England. In his later (and superior) Strangers on a Train (1951), a dining car becomes a disquieting arena that serves as a borderline between the opposed worlds of a sports celebrity and a sadistic psychopath.

At a time in Great Britain when ‘gay’ meant something different, housewives did as they were told, and public transport ran like clockwork, David Lean brought pent-up passion and crushing pathos to the platform in Brief Encounter (1946), the iconic portrait of a doomed love affair between two married strangers who meet by chance at a railway café. Lean’s masterstroke here was to treat the station, with its dreary teashop and shadow-strewn underpass, as symbolic of the suffocating society into which the protagonists were born. As trains plough through tunnels with phallic authority and clouds of steam linger longingly in the air, the tragic weight of forbidden sexual desire is so oppressive one can almost taste it. Years down the line, the director swapped the monochrome mundanity of London for the searing deserts of Saudi, staging a spurt of spectacular sequences for his 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia: most impressively, the destruction of a troop carrier that derails and erupts into flames, contorting on the golden sand like a dying serpent.

The perception of locomotives as harbingers of doom has been a prevalent theme across genres since the advent of the damsel-in-distress, a silent-era sight gag whereby a nefarious crook would tie a voluptuous young gal to the tracks, leaving her begging for her life as a train approaches at full speed. (One could argue that this was the original manifestation of the Final Girl trope, were it not for the fact that a strapping male had to step in and save the day.) For the townsfolk in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a cloud of capitalist greed hangs heavy over their community when the construction of an unwanted railroad begins; while for the four teenage boys in Rob Reiner’s classic coming-of-ager Stand by Me (1986), the impending burden of adulthood is embodied by the gargantuan, fire-breathing beast that chases them across the slats of a rickety old bridge. Historical films, on the other hand, have provided us with an altogether more harrowing image: that of petrified men, women and children being carted like cattle to concentration camps during World War II.

Missing your train can be a nightmare . . . but catching it, as the passengers aboard Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train discover, can be even worse. 1980: a group of college co-eds host a flamboyant party on a rented steam train, three years after a cruel fraternity prank put one of their peers in a mental institution. Joining them for the overnight shenanigans is—surprise!—a masked maniac who, driven by vengeance and the rigorous rules of horror pictures, proceeds to pick off the unsuspecting revellers one by one. In a post-seventies market rife with gutless Halloween (1978) clones, Terror Train at least had the miracle of steam power on its side, with Spottiswoode squeezing every last drop of menace from the belly of a bona fide Canadian Pacific 1293 locomotive; a labyrinthine stretch of long corridors and tight spaces, elegantly accentuated by the astute work of cinematographer John Alcott. Several corpses and a couple of witty observations on the demise of train travel later, we arrive at our destination: an intense third-act reveal, as brilliant as it is banal, that solidifies this slasher as a pleasurable diversion through genre territory.

Without the steam train, cinema would be a banquet with no cutlery; an orchestra without strings. Whether labouring alongside a busy platform, or tearing through vast landscapes while painting dollops of grey-black smoke onto the sky, there’s truly no other mechanism in film that ignites the imagination—particularly as a wistful evocation of days gone by—like this centuries-old jewel of engineering.

Thank you, dear reader, for sharing this journey with me.

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