The Best Train Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen

murder on orient express

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we take a look at some of the best train movies you’ve probably never seen.)

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is back on the big screen again, and while Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation has received something of a mixed response, it’s a reminder that some of us just love a good train-set movie. From Buster Keaton’s The General to Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, there’s something fairly unique about films that take part at least partly on a train. It’s a contained location, but it’s moving across an ever-changing landscape. Sure, cars and planes do the same, but there’s less opportunity for moving around aboard those vehicles. Trains have different cars, private rooms, luggage departments, and best of all, rooftops on which characters can run, fight, and fall while traveling at high speeds.

There are a lot of train-set movies, from comedies (Silver Streak) to slashers (Terror Train) to nightmarish holiday journeys through the uncanny valley (The Polar Express), but for every one you know there’s a few you probably haven’t seen yet. Some are forgettable, but others, like the ones below, don’t get talked about nearly enough and are well worth seeking out for a good time at the movies.

the incident

The Incident (1967)

It’s after midnight in the Bronx, and a handful of strangers are winding down their nights and heading home. One after another, they board a train for home, but they’re not the only ones in search of a ride. Two violent punks enter the car intent on causing trouble, and as the train winds its way across the quiet city, the pair terrorize the passengers and push the frightened men, women, and children to their very limits.

This is a powerful condemnation of apathy, cowardice, and other unfortunate traits evident in far too many of us. Martin Sheen‘s first feature film role sees him bring a volatile thug to unpredictable life alongside an equally dangerous Tony Musante. The pair mug a man for his last eight bucks before boarding the train, and it’s clear they’re in it for the sick thrills as opposed to the profit. Their victims are made up of equally recognizable faces including Beau Bridges, Ed McMahon, Jack Gilford, Ruby Dee, and more.

The incident of the title is a tense, nerve-wracking affair offering a social commentary – more than one actually – on the people and times. A couple arguing about money, a pair of young soldiers discussing their futures, a black man angry at the slow progress of civil rights, a manipulative man focused on getting in his date’s pants, a gay man, and a timid teacher are just some of the passengers, and the film’s first half introduces each through conversations showing their station in life as well their various levels of frustration with it. The film’s asking what you would do in this situation – a question no one can answer accurately – and watching it unfold is an exercise in fist-clenching tension wondering just how far these people will let others be pushed around before stepping up. There are some sharp, painful observations here, including one familiar to fans of Night of the Living Dead. Sadly, very little of it feels dated.

The Incident is not currently available.

emperor of the north

Emperor of the North (1973)

The Great Depression left its mark on the country and the people in the form of desperation and anger. It in turn gave rise to the hobo – homeless men who travel the land on foot or aboard trains they’ve illegally infiltrated. Railroad companies were understandably against the idea of freeloaders, and in an effort to clear their trains, they went overboard in sanctioning their conductors to eliminate the ride-thieves however they saw fit. The story at hand sees Lee Marvin as the top hobo and Ernest Borgnine as the top railway man. Only one will survive this trip.

Director Robert Aldritch (The Dirty DozenThe Longest Yard) crafts a powerful battle of wills between two men on and off a near-constantly moving platform, and while numerous big stunts punctuate the film, it finds some of its thrills by placing its lead actors atop and beneath a moving train. It’s an exciting ride with action crafted in-camera as opposed to today’s CG adventures, and it comes with real intensity between the two men which adds grit and dramatic weight to the violence.

It’s a thrilling watch, but it’s also a surprisingly funny one. There’s an offbeat sense of humor running through it all, evident partly in Borgnine’s frustrations but mostly in Marvin’s devil may care attitude. He’s a charmer – a romantic notion of the hobo life to be sure – and his clash with corporate cruelty hardens him without shattering his outlook. Keith Carradine is also along for the ride, and while he grates early on, he grows to become a supporting character worth caring about. The film offers a look at a world barely glimpsed by outsiders, and it does so through the eyes of two diametrically opposed personalities.

Buy Emperor of the North on DVD from Amazon.

the cassandra crossing

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

A trio of terrorists break into a World Health Organization building with deadly intent, but their plan goes awry and only one escapes with his life. Well, temporarily. His bullet-riddled escape leaves him exposed to a lethal plague, and as he sneaks aboard a train bound for Paris, he unknowingly spreads the contagion further. Government agents work from afar to track and stop the plague while the passengers aboard the train find themselves aboard a rolling nightmare.

Director George P, Cosmatos‘ (Cobra, Tombstone) third feature is part disaster film and part government thriller, and the former is evident in its high-profile cast list. Burt Lancaster plays the high-ranking American trying to control things from afar while the train’s passenger manifest reads like a who’s who of 50s/60s/70s cinema including Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Martin Sheen, Lee Strasberg, Ava Gardner, and even O.J. Simpson.

The film does a good job establishing the individual relationships – a divorced couple, the wife of an infamous arms dealer, a suspicious man masquerading as a priest – leaving us characters we’re involved with before the plague strikes. It has a 60% mortality rate, so a train with 1000 people on it is at risk of seeing hundreds of sweaty, puffy, and dead people before the film ends. Thrills come in the form of illness, martial law, and a maniacal Sheen (seriously, keep this man off trains!), and the suspense ratchets up as the train heads toward the destination of the title promising either sanctuary – or doom – for all aboard.

Buy The Cassandra Crossing on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.

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