Flashback Friday: Great Train Movies!

The topic of the last two Flashback Friday articles focused on trains – an article about the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad and the history of railways in Great Britain, where trains were first used.

Sticking with the railroad theme for at least one more Flashback Friday, this week will be about movies that feature trains. A few weeks ago, movies about trucking were the topic of Flashback Friday. It turns out there are many, many more movies that feature trains than those that feature trucks…

Like the Flashback Friday article that profiled movies that featured trucks, this article will feature one movie that “stars” a train for each decade. Narrowing down the choices to just one movie per decade is very difficult, so future Flashback Fridays will feature other train-related movies. Several sources were reviewed for help compiling this list – Entertainment Weekly, IMDb, All Gifts Considered and Popular Mechanics!

The list includes action-adventure movies, love stories, film noir, an animated feature, a Western and a detective story… a great deal of variety and so many, many more train movies that could have been on the list!!!

1900-09 – The Great Train Robbery (1903) IMDb Rating – 7.1

Image courtesy of IMDb

The Great Train Robbery is an American silent short (12 minutes) Western film written, produced and directed by Edwin S. Porter, a former Edison Studios cameraman. Actors in the movie included Alfred C. Abadie, Bronco Billy Anderson and Justus D. Barnes, although there were no credits.

1910-19 – None, nada, zilch…

1920-29 – The General (1926) IMDb Rating – 8.2

Image courtesy of IMDb

When Union spies steal an engineer’s beloved locomotive, he pursues it single-handedly and straight through enemy lines. This silent movie was (in part) written and directed by Buster Keaton, who also starred in the film.

Image courtesy of

1930-39 – The Lady Vanishes (1938) IMDb Rating – 7.9

While traveling in continental Europe, a rich young playgirl realizes that an elderly lady seems to have disappeared from the train.

This 97-minute classic was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Great Britain with the war clouds of World War II gathering. It is one of two Hitchock movies on this list (and there could have been at least one more!). The Lady Vanishes has been remade several times, but newer versions cannot match the original Hitchcock thriller.

The Lady Vanishes starred Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas and Dame May Witty.

Image from Brief Encounter courtesy of The Guardian.

1940-49 – Brief Encounter (1945) IMDb Rating – 8.1

Meeting a stranger in a railway station, a woman is tempted to cheat on her husband.

Brief Encounter was made in Great Britain during the last year of World War II and directed by David Lean. It starred Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Stanley Holloway.

Image courtesy of IMDb

1950-59 – Strangers on a Train (1951) IMDb Rating – 8.0

Strangers on a Train is the second movie on the list directed by Alfred Hitchock. Can you guess the third? It is North by Northwest, which was released in 1959 and starred Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

In Strangers on a Train, a psychopath forces a tennis star to comply with his theory that two strangers can get away with murder.

One of the writers of the screenplay was the great writer Raymond Chandler. This film noir thriller starred Farley Granger, Robert Walker and Ruth Roman.

Image courtesy of IMDb

1960-69 – The Train (1964) IMDb Rating – 7.9

In 1944, a German colonel loads a train with French art treasures to send to Germany. The Resistance must stop it without damaging the cargo.

The Train was directed by John Frankenheimer. Arthur Penn also helped to direct the film, be he is not credited on screen. This action movie set in World War II starred Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau.

Image courtesy of IMDb

1970-79 – Murder on the Orient Express (1974) IMDb Rating – 7.3

This movie was set in December 1935. When his train is stopped by deep snow, detective Hercule Poirot is called on to solve a murder that occurred in his car the night before.

This version of Murder on the Orient Express was directed by Sidney Lumet. It starred Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman.

Image courtesy of Hollywood Reporter

1980-89 – Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) IMDb Rating – 7.6

A man must struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious slob of a shower curtain ring salesman as his only companion.

This classic comedy was written and directed by John Hughes. It starred Steve Martin and John Candy.

Image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

1990-99 – Narrow Margin (1990) IMDb Rating – 6.6

This movie is a remake of the 1952 film The Narrow Margin, which is also a terrific movie (IMDb Rating of 7.7; see the “bonus” poster above).

In Narrow Margin, a Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney is sent to protect a woman who accidentally witnessed a Mafia murder.

The film was written and directed by Peter Hyams. It starred Gene Hackman, Anne Archer and James Sikking.

Image courtesy of IMDb

2000-09 – The Polar Express (2004) IMDb Rating – 6.6

On Christmas Eve, a young boy embarks on a magical adventure to the North Pole on the Polar Express, while learning about friendship, bravery and the spirit of Christmas.

Image courtesy of

This animated movie was written (screenplay) and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Its (voice) stars included Tom Hanks, Chris Coppola and Michael Jeter.

2010-19 – Unstoppable (2010) IMDb Rating – 6.8

With an unmanned, half-mile-long freight train barreling toward a city, a veteran engineer and a young conductor race against the clock to prevent a catastrophe.

This action-adventure movie was directed by Tony Scott. It starred Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson.

Image courtesy of

Many of you who read this article will disagree with a particular movie (or more). As written above, there have been many movies that “starred” trains and FreightWaves will share more of them in future Flashback Friday articles.

In the meantime, watch a few of these and enjoy!

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Scott Mall, Managing Editor of Copy

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of Copy for the FreightWaves website. He also writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, material for the Blockchain in Transport Alliance and a variety of FreightWaves material. Mall’s career spans 40 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government.

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