If you’re a fan of trains and the allure of the open tracks, you won’t want to miss out on the cinematic experience of a good train movie. From classic Westerns to pulse-pounding action thrillers, trains have been a staple of the silver screen for over a century. Here are some of the very best movies to take a ride on the rails. Subways are included here as well. These movies are listed in chronological order, going way back to 1903.
1. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
One of the earliest narrative films ever made, The Great Train Robbery was a sensation upon its release and set the standard for train-based action onscreen. Directed by Edwin S. Porter, the film, in a mere 12 minutes, tells the story of a band of bandits who take over a train and make off with its cargo of gold. With innovative editing techniques and thrilling action sequences, it’s easy to see why The Great Train Robbery remains a classic to this day. It was remade in 1978 by Michael Crichton, starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.
Buster Keaton’s silent comedy masterpiece The General is perhaps the definitive train movie. Set during the Civil War, the film follows Keaton’s hapless train engineer as he attempts to rescue his beloved locomotive and thwart a group of Union spies. With stunning stunt work and Keaton’s trademark deadpan humor, The General is one of the greatest films ever made.
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic noir mystery is another example of a movie where a train plays a crucial role. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train is about two men who concoct a farfetched but wickedly brilliant scheme: each will commit a murder on behalf of the other, making it extremely hard to catch either of them. This film has influenced countless other murder mysteries.
Another entry for the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. North By Northwest is a masterclass in suspense filmmaking, and its climactic chase sequence atop a moving train is one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Starring Cary Grant as an advertising executive mistaken for a spy, the film takes him on a wild cross-country journey that culminates in a showdown aboard a speeding train.
This one features the subway as a major character. A gritty crime thriller stars Walter Matthau as a New York City transit cop who must negotiate with a group of hijackers who have taken a subway train and its passengers hostage. With tense action and a sharp script, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a classic of the genre. The film was actually remade twice, once in 1998 and again in 2009. Critics may argue which of the three is best, but if you haven’t seen any of them you should definitely start with the original.
Based on Agatha Christie’s popular novel, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic mystery movie that takes place aboard the famous Orient Express train. The story revolves around Detective Hercule Poirot as he attempts to solve a gruesome murder on board the train. With an all-star cast featuring the likes of Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall, this whodunit film remains a timeless classic. It was remade in 2017 by Kenneth Branagh.
Not well reviewed when it came out, The Warriors, directed by Walter Hill has become a cult classic and an iconic New York 1970s movie. It’s a violent, surreal journey of a street gang having to fight its way from the Bronx to its home base in Coney Island, mostly via the New York City subway system. It can be viewed as a modern urban version of The Odyssey featuring unique cinematography and intricately choreographed fight scenes.
The Fugitive, a 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford, is based on the TV series from the 1960s that’s become a cult classic. One of the outstanding scenes in the film is a train crash scene. In the scene, Ford’s character is being transported to prison by train when a collision occurs, allowing him to escape. The crash, filmed using a combination of practical effects and CGI, is one of the most impressive train crash scenes ever filmed.
The first in Richard Linklater’s brilliant trilogy, Before Sunrise features two young travelers, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke who meet and fall in love on a European train journey. The film is a great example of character and dialog-driven filmmaking as it manages to keep viewers captivated without any action or complex plot devices. The sequels Before Sunset, and Before Midnight are also worth seeing, though not as train-centric. See my full review of Before Sunrise.
The Hogwarts Express, the train that takes young wizards to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is a major part of the Harry Potter books and movies. In the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Hogwarts Express is introduced in a memorable scene where Harry boards the train and meets Ron Weasley for the first time.
In a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth has frozen over, the last remnants of humanity survive aboard a massive, perpetually moving train. Snowpiercer follows a rebellion led by Chris Evans’ character as they make their way through the train’s various classes and compartments, fighting against its strict hierarchy. With stunning visuals and a gripping story, Snowpiercer is a train movie unlike any other.
Trains have been an integral part of movie history. From the earliest films to modern blockbusters, trains have been used to create suspense, excitement, and drama. These iconic movies are just a small sample of the many great train moments in movie history. I may add more train movies in the future, as there are surely many I overlooked here.
Love trains? See Rail Buffs, another of my sites, where there’s a version of this article and lots of other content on railroad history, model trains, subways, metros, and more!