10 Films to Watch Before Embarking on a Rail Trip

These films, just like our slow travel Rail Trips, celebrate the wonder, romance and spectacle of a good old fashioned train journey
These films, just like our slow travel Rail Trips, celebrate the wonder, romance and spectacle of a good old fashioned train journey | Ester Marie Doysabas / Unsplash
Gethin Morgan

Content and CRM Executive

Trains have been present in our cinematic landscape since the very beginning, when cinema’s founding fathers Auguste and Louis Lumière premiered Arrival of a Train (1895). So, what better way to prepare for one of our Rail Trips than by watching these 10 films starring trains? If you’re joining us on a trip you could even download a few to watch onboard.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Film’s most famous train is a fictional one. The Hogwarts Express is synonymous with the entire Harry Potter series, but the seminal journey that takes Harry, Hermione and Ron from the doldrums day-to-day muggle life to the magical landscapes of the wizarding world (or, as we know it, the Scottish countryside) is never topped. What other form of transport could do the job as evocatively? Imagine going through security at Hogwarts International Airport, or booking an enchanted Uber? It wouldn’t have quite the same effect. And, if you didn’t already know, you can experience Harry’s journey yourself – as the route (and train) depicted on screen is based on the Jacobite Steam Train. Book a spot on our Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands by Train trip, and you can gaze in awe at passing lochs, remote villages and, of course, the stunning Glenfinnan viaduct, as you chug your way not to Hogwarts, but to the small fishing village of Mallaig, which we can assure you is every bit as magical.

The General (1926)

Let’s take it way back to one of the original pioneers of moviemaking. Buster Keaton is an icon of the silent era, and to this day one of his most famous and influential works revolves around a locomotive. The General follows Keaton’s engineer Johnnie Gray who, amid the backdrop of the American Civil War, is caught up in a series of events thanks to his two loves – a woman, and his train. The film features the silent era’s most expensive stunt, an audacious set piece where Keaton and co. actually send a real train careering off a burning bridge and into the water, with the help of a large quantity of dynamite. His audacity resulted in a financial flop that had an everlasting impact on his career, but in one take, one shot, one precious roll of film, Buster Keaton made history, and his legacy lives on.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Wes Anderson loves trains. Perhaps it’s the symmetry, the old world charm or simply the interesting characters you can discover onboard. In 2016 he brought his signature style to a wholesome H&M Christmas commercial set onboard a train, and in 2021 he even designed his own carriage on Belmond’s British Pullman, which chugs through the English countryside. The Darjeeling Limited, set almost entirely on the fictional train of the same name, is his ultimate ode to rail travel. It stars Anderson regulars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman as brothers who embark on a journey not only to find their mother, but also to rehabilitate their family relationship. The film was shot mostly in Jodhpur and Udaipur, and you can visit both by joining our Regal Rajasthan trip.

Before Sunrise (1995)

While the bulk of Richard Linklater’s indie classic takes place on the charming streets of Vienna, it’s a train meet-cute that sets off the intellectual’s ultimate romance fantasy. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a US backpacker heading to Vienna, boards at Budapest. He’s reading, as is Céline (Julie Delpy), a university student en route to Paris. They get chatting and, as the train pulls into Vienna, spontaneously decide to hop off and continue the conversation. The rest, as they say, is history. The film’s main focus is on youth, love and the ever-changing flow of a thrilling conversation, but the premise that sets it all in motion is a nod to the romance of train travel. We’ll take you on the same journey, in reverse, on our Berlin to Budapest Rail Trip, which stops off at Vienna on the way. Who knows who you might strike up a conversation with onboard…

Brief Encounter (1945)

We can’t speak about trains and romance without mentioning Brief Encounter. David Lean’s British classic is clearly an influence on Before Sunrise, with the central love affair starting and famously ending at a railway station. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are magnificent as Laura and Alec, the two married middle-agers who become entangled in forbidden desires. Few films have had a greater influence on on-screen romance, and few have managed to so viscerally capture the intimate thrill of falling in love, which Lean makes all-the-more atmospheric thanks to the fog-like steam billowing from incoming and outgoing trains.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Alfred Hitchcock was the master of tension and he clearly loved the dramatic potential of trains. The 39 Steps (1935) shifts into gear when Richard Hannay boards the Flying Scotsman from London to the Highlands. It’s onboard a train from New York to Chicago that Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill dramatically hides from the police and strikes a connection with Eve Kendall in North by Northwest (1959). There’s also Strangers on a Train (1951), a typically twisted psychological thriller, but it’s with The Lady Vanishes that Hitchcock goes all out on the tracks. This beguiling disappearance thriller plays with the idea of seeing is believing, as Margaret Lockwood’s Iris Henderson is thrust into a mystery of self-doubt when her post-concussion concerns for the old lady she previously saw on the train are gaslit by her fellow passengers. Hitchcock uses the confines of carriages to brilliant effect, much like Sidney Lumet did decades later with Murder on the Orient Express (1974) – it’s no wonder that murder mystery carriages have become a popular fad in rail travel.

Bullet Train (2022)

Japan’s famous Shinkansen has been surprisingly under-utilised in film, at least it was before David Leitch’s action comedy hoot starring Brad Pitt. Much like the titular train, Leitch takes the classical dramatic conceits of a rail journey and gives it a super glossy, high-tech twist. Smash together the slickness of Hollywood and the quirkiness of Japanese cinema, along with the modern fight choreography pioneered by Leitch himself, and what you get is a popcorn bonanza populated by a stream of larger-than-life characters. The Shinkansen’s futuristic features are constantly utilised with great invention, be it for narrative purposes or simply moments of action, to the extent that the movie itself couldn’t exist without the specificity of one of the world’s most iconic trains. The Shinkansen also plays a starring role in our 12-day Rail Trip in Japan, so you can experience the wonder of the Bullet Train with us, admittedly with a lot less violence and fewer cheesy Hollywood quips.

Terminal Station (1953)

Italian master Vittorio De Sica’s legacy has been cemented by the great Bicycle Thieves (1948), a film so impactful that it helped establish the Oscars’ Best Foreign Film award, and ten years on from its release was named the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound magazine. Like Hitchcock, Lean and the Lumières before him, De Sica was attracted by the dramatic stakes and romantic setting of a railway station. This tale of forbidden love, not unlike Brief Encounter, was an Italian-Hollywood international production written in part by Truman Capote. The titular star of the film is Roma Termini, the Italian capital’s primary station, which is also the starting point of our Northern Italy Rail Trip – so Stazione Termini really is essential homework viewing for anyone joining us in Rome.

Train to Busan (2016)

OK, disclaimer, maybe you shouldn’t watch this Korean horror before embarking on a Rail Trip. But, if you’ve got the disposition for blood and guts on screen, then Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie epic is one of the genre’s finest, and one of the best uses of a train setting in movie history. A father and daughter are heading from Seoul to Busan amid a supernatural chemical outbreak. Cue a panicked boarding process, followed by classic zombie twists, ingenious action set-pieces and a plot filled with heart, humanity and character development. In some ways it’s the ultimate example of how a train can be the perfect vehicle for storytelling, whether it’s through tension caused by confined spaces, the metaphorical journey its characters can embark on while onboard, or the utter terror of a carriage full of crazed killer zombies – now that’s cinema! If you already are a lover of South Korea’s incredible catalogue of films then why not visit the country itself on our Soulful South Korea Epic Trip? No zombies, we promise.

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