A film’s setting can be one of the most crucial factors in enticing audiences. A range of exotic locations can appeal to viewers, a tactic used in many James Bond adventures. The magic of the movies can also see stories take place in fictional settings, transporting audiences to fantasy worlds or planets beyond our reach, seen in both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.
However, instead of going big, sometimes films go small, opting for a single location setting. These might consist of films set in one room, feature characters trapped in a single location, or maybe even be set onboard public transport, such as a train. But with all the vast locations films can take us to, is it really possible to create a compelling narrative while predominantly using just one, relatively small location?
Well, when it comes to trains, decades of filmmakers have thought so, with numerous movies being set in part, or fully on board a range of locomotive transport. David Leitch’s Bullet Train is the latest film of the sort to pull into cinematic stations, so it’s the perfect time to consider if films set on these smaller railroad settings can still entertain in a big way. And ultimately decide what are the very best movies set on trains.
10. The Great Train Robbery (1978)
Director: Michael Crichton
Based on his own novel of the same name, Michael Crichton adapted The Great Train Robbery for the screen in 1979. The film stars Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland as a pair of criminals who hatch a plan to steal a shipment of gold onboard the London to Folkestone train, intended as payment for British troops in the Crimean War. However, with the gold spread across two safes and needing a total of four keys to unlock them, there’s a lot of thieving to do.
By this point in his career Connery was no stranger to trains, already having found himself on the Orient Express twice by this stage. This was the case both in his second outing as James Bond in From Russia With Love and of course in the Agatha Christie adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express.
This rally on the railway is a joyously lighthearted, fun and silly heist flick that boasts plenty of impressive action too. With Connery and Sutherland bringing an entertaining dynamic full of wit and comedy, they allowed Crichton to take his adaptation full steam ahead.
9. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Director: Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s fifth feature film saw him take to the tracks with Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman for his comedy-drama, The Darjeeling Limited. The aforementioned actors play three estranged brothers who agree to take a spiritual trip across India together, a year after their father’s funeral. Their characters are typically eccentric in the way that’s typical for most of Anderson’s characters, sharing a humorous yet genuinely heartfelt chemistry that’s important for the film’s central themes.
The film’s main setting is the titular train and it collides with Anderson’s directional flair brilliantly. His tracking shots, using both interior and exterior points of view of the train make the most of the setting. This coupled with the predictably gorgeous production design, help to create an authentically Anderson picture.
The film never comes close to derailing, though things do become somewhat less engaging when the story moves away from the initial railroad setting. Thankfully, Anderson brings the film full circle and the brothers do eventually return to the train, where the film is at its best.
8. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Director: Joseph Sargent
Rolling into cinematic stations in 1974, Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three remains the best version of the film, of which there are now three in total.
Following a hostage situation on a New York City Subway car, the film stars Walter Matthau as the Transit lieutenant tasked with negotiating the safe release of the eighteen passengers trapped onboard. On the other end of said negotiations is the leader of the criminal plot, Robert Shaw’s Mr. Blue. The pair make for a brilliant duo and steer Sargent’s crime drama straight to success, providing a tense and entertaining dialogue throughout.
The film wastes no time in getting its plot underway with the titular train hijacked within the first ten minutes of the movie. From here onwards the plot chugs along at a steady pace with the standout sequence being the suspenseful race against time to deliver the money demanded by the hostage takers. While much of the action takes place in and around the subway car, it doesn’t restrict itself solely to this setting. This works to the film’s advantage, as it includes a range of characters and locations while always keeping the plot focused on the central train hold up. However, the film’s best feature might just be its very final shot. If you know, you know.
7. The Commuter (2018)
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Teaming up with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a third time, Liam Neeson plays a cop turned insurance salesman in this trashy action thriller. While travelling home on the train, he meets a mysterious woman, played in very camp fashion by Vera Farmiga. She presents him with a bizarre offer that could see him come into a lot of money if he can complete a task for her. It’s all rather preposterous, but in the best kind of way.
Collet-Serra knows how to make the most of this locomotive setting. Following Neeson through the various carriages high and low as he looks for clues, he creates room for the film to breathe. However, he’s equally capable of shrinking the setting when required. His duality with the film’s spacial awareness gives Neeson all the room he needs to play. The final result is a film that’s super cheesy, but also very charming.
In terms of what audiences will be used to from this actor/director duo, it’s more of the same. And if audiences have liked what they’ve already seen, The Commuter is definitely worth a return ticket.
6. Transsiberian (2008)
Director: Brad Anderson
Playing an American couple returning home from a mission trip in China, Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson find themselves on the Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Moscow. The journey begins with a fairly meandering pace, that is until they meet a mysterious couple along the way. From this point on events take a dramatic turn for the worst and the couple find themselves amidst a dangerous criminal investigation. Admittedly, like the couples’ own journey, the film is a little too leisurely to begin with. However, this thriller is a slow burn and one that’s wholly worth sticking with.
As the narrative unfolds and more details are revealed about the characters, the film’s setting becomes all the more important. Utlising the space expertly, Anderson’s train becomes less of a vehicle to get the characters to their destination and more of an inescapable moving prison. This heightened sense of claustrophobia combines with the mysteries of the screenplay wonderfully, creating the exact sense of tension required to make a thriller like this a success.
With an entertaining supporting turn from Ben Kingsley too, Transsiberian is a fun thriller that deserves to be seen by more people.
5. The General (1926)
Director: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton’s silent film The General is a Civil War comedy based on the real life military raid known as the Great Locomotive Chase. As well as co-directing, the film sees Keaton star in the leading role as Johnnie Gray. Gray is a railroad train engineer attempting to recover his train, the titular “General”, from Union soldiers after they successfully steal it from him. What follows is a very comical railway chase full of slapstick humour, creative comedy and expensive stunt work.
Of course it has to be mentioned how such a lighthearted tone can feel misplaced considering what side the film’s protagonist is fighting for. A much more detailed and larger conversation is necessary when considering the politics and ethics of the film, which still need to be considered, despite their largely absent nature from the plot. Nonetheless, the stunt work carried out in this film is phenomenal, and the reason why it’s on this list of the best movies set on trains.
With an extravagant budget of US$750,000, massive for the time, Keaton and Bruckman deliver some truly spectacular set pieces and stunk work. What they achieved, now almost a century ago, still puts much of the action and effects seen in today’s train movies to shame.
4. Unstoppable (2010)
Director: Tony Scott
Tony Scott’s final film is a testament to his talent as a director. Unstoppable stars Chris Pine and Denzel Washington as two railroad workers who attempt to stop a runaway train. The story is based on real life events which happened over a decade before the film’s release.
It was always apparent that Scott had an eye for action and what he captures for Unstoppable is undoubtedly some of the very best of his career. The practical effects employed are excellent and as a result makes Unstoppable arguably the best looking train film of all time.
With frequent collaborator Washington on board once more, Scott secured himself the strong presence needed to keep this action movie on track. The addition of Pine works well too, with the pair of actors having a chemistry that keeps the film engaging in between the action. In turn, these careful moments of character development enhance the stakes of the action, creating an entirely more gripping affair. So while the train they’re trying to catch is constantly at risk of derailing, in the safe hands of Scott, the film never is.
3. Source Code (2011)
Director: Duncan Jones
It’s fair to say that time loop movies run the risk of becoming tiresome; the repetitive gimmick of watching a character relive the same scenario again and again can be hard to make compelling. However, Duncan Jones’ Source Code manages to overcome this.
His film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier in an eight-minute time loop, tasked with finding and defusing a bomb on a public train. Gyllenhaal is brilliant as the film’s leading man, giving a strong performance encompassing his character’s initial disorientation that gradually develops into determination to complete his mission. The progression of his character allows Gyllenhaal to demonstrate his range wonderfully, jumping between emotional and unhinged at the change of a carriage.
Similarly to Gyllenhaal’s performance, the film works on many levels. The main plot is an intriguing mystery, essentially serving as a whodunnit with a train full of passengers as suspects. This is cleverly enhanced by the sci-fi elements, which in turn also make way for some more emotional character moments. The premise gives the film the firm foundation to become all of these things and when executed so effectively within a neat 90 minute runtime, it’s well worth boarding.
2. Snowpiercer (2013)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Most will know him as the award-winning director of Parasite, and rightfully so, but Bong Joon-ho has also directed many other brilliant films too. These include the thrilling post-apocalyptic drama, Snowpiercer.
Starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and regular collaborator, Song Kang-ho, the film takes place entirely on a train that Earth’s surviving population now live on after the planet has entered a new ice age. Evans’ character, Curtis, leads a revolt as he attempts to reach the front of the train to challenge the unfair social hierarchy that sees his section of the train living in the poorest conditions.
Both highly relevant upon its release, while also being ahead of its time, Snowpiercer’s exploration of both climate change and the class system manages to connect its post-apocalyptic setting to the world right now. With an immediately sympathetic cause, it’s so easy to root for the film’s main characters and the cast’s emotive and powerful performances only strengthen their appeal. With creative and intriguing production design throughout the train, this sci-fi epic fully utilises its settings, and in doing so provides audiences with a first class viewing experience.
1. Train to Busan (2016)
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Trains have often been used as the setting for horror films. Among others, scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis starred in slasher Terror Train, and leading man Bradley Cooper fronted horror, The Midnight Meat Train. While these movies are entertaining in part, they’re also deeply flawed, failing to fully marry the genre with their locomotive settings. However, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan encounters no such problems, easily being both the best horror film, and film in general, set on a train.
After a deadly chemical leak, a zombie apocalypse descends across all of South Korea. Father and daughter, Seok-woo and Su-an, are aboard a high speed train when the outbreak occurs and now, alongside their fellow passengers must fight for their survival. Train to Busan boasts some of the best zombie action in cinema history. There are countless standout sequences with one at a train station being the highlight.
What’s so good about this film is that the relentless pace of its action is consistently matched by the emotion of its character work. When horror fully invests in its characters as well as its plot it can create something truly special and Train to Busan is one of the best examples. Between the racing of your heart in the ferocious action sequences to the watering of your eyes in the film’s heartbreaking finale, this is an emotional, all-encompassing train ride that everyone needs to experience.
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