Cinema likes trains. They’re closed spaces, which means you don’t have to go to many different areas or sets, but they also provide the characters more room to move around than on an airplane. They’re very good for mystery films, and can work well with action, too. With a new movie set on a train coming out this week, let’s take a look at the best train movies in cinema history Snakes on a Train—yes, that’s real—will not be on this list.
Here are the top 10 movies set on a train.
The Great Train Robbery
I like to include older films on this list, in large part because many of you probably haven’t seen them—or, in some cases, even heard of them. Cinema history is fascinating, according to film professors, but if you don’t have a reason to watch the movies, you’re probably not going to. There are so many modern movies to watch that you’ll tend to go to one of those, with actors or directors you know, and a time period that’s more relatable. I get it. I do it, too.
The Great Train Robbery is one of the first action movies of all time, and it’s only 12 minutes long. It is pretty much what the title suggests: A train robbery. It’s a silent movie that was released in 1903, and it’s both engaging and fascinating. And if you’re talking about the best train movies ever, it’s one that needs to be included.
Buster Keaton is one of the funniest filmmakers ever. Decades ago, he and Charlie Chaplin created some of the funniest movies you’ll ever see; Keaton’s best work came slightly earlier, while Chaplin’s was a little bit after, but they were working at the same time, is the point. And it’s not just how funny the films were—and still are—but it’s the creativity on display in order to make the shots or gags work. It’s fascinating stuff.
The General is one of Keaton’s finest, released just a couple of years after my personal favorite, Sherlock Jr. It’s really funny, of course, but it also told a real story and did it pretty well. It looks great, too. And it’s in the public domain, so you don’t even need to spend any money ot watch it.
Strangers on a Train
Alfred Hitchcock likes trains. Or, at least, he liked them for movies. And it makes sense why. They provide intimacy, lots of people, the freedom to move around, a constantly changing background—they’re great cinematic props.
Strangers on a Train is probably his best train movie, which sees two people meet on a train and plot a double murder—but each one murder the other’s target. It’s really fun stuff, and while it might not be the filmmakers best movie overall, it’s a very good one.
Murder on the Orient Express
We just got a new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, courtesy of Kenneth Branagh’s giant mustache, but the 1974 movie is the one to watch, assuming you can tolerate watching a movie starring Albert Finney, Ingrid Begman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Anthony Perokins, and Vanessa Redgrave—among many others—that was directed by Sidney Lumet.
And if those names don’t mean anything to you, please look them up.
The film follows a detective who winds up investigating a murder aboard the train, and everyone is a suspect. It’s great fun, its cast is top-notch, and its mystery is solid. If you saw the new one, track this one down, too. And if you haven’t seen either, this is the one to watch.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
You could watch the remake from 2009, or you could watch a good movie, like the original from 1974. Both movies are about the hijacking of a subway car, but the original has stronger characters and feels more realistic. The remake might be slicker, and taking place post-9/11 does have advantages, but it only really gives us two important characters, one of whom is played by a gleefully over-the-top John Travolta—which lessens how real it all feels.
Transsiberian is a thriller that doesn’t feel like a thriller until about 20-30 minutes into its running time. This first bit of the movie sets up the characters, starts to build a sense of atmosphere, and puts you in a state of unease. It sees four people on a train from Beijing to Moscow, and some of them may or may not be hiding something—and then things start to go, pardon the pun, off the rails. It’s a very good movie that go overlooked on its release.
Source Code sees a man have 8 minutes to find a bomb on a train—and he keeps having to try again if he fails. It functions like a more thrilling Groundhog Day, but one with some bigger ideas and mind-bending. I don’t want to ruin anything else about it by giving you any more information, so just trust me on this one.
Snowpiercer takes place exclusively on a train, one that’s constantly moving, and sees its cars divided up by class or purpose. It tackles class disparity and climate change—and provides you with a heck of an action movie as well. The oppressed eventually decide they’d rather not be, and as such start a revolt that gets bloody. It’s smart, thrilling, and violent. It’s a lot of fun.
Train to Busan
I talked about Train to Busan here, but it really is a great movie. It’s got all the drama you want out of any movie, it has scary zombies, it has solid fundamental filmmaking, and because it’s a foreign-language movie, you can claim to be a “real cinephile.” It’s a win all around!
The Commuter is a Liam Neeson action-thriller set on a train, one that spends a lot of its time having Neeson try to figure out a mystery: Who on this train doesn’t belong? It’s got some good action sequences – one, in particular, either is or was edited to look like it was shot in a single take – the central mystery is engaging, the peripheral details are fun to suss out, and while it comes off the rails a bit near its conclusion (pun intended) it’s an enjoyable movie and showcases how good Neeson can be still be in this kind of role when he cares about the project and gets good direction.