Explore the history of the railroad in the movies

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Arrival of a train at La Ciotat stationknown in English as The arrival of a train at La Ciotat stationwas not the very first film directed by August and Louis Light. However, it was their only film associated with an iconic legend that 1896 moviegoers, largely unaccustomed to theatrical cinema, were so startled by the image of a train heading towards the camera, that they all panicked. . They thought there really was a train coming straight at them! While it’s up for debate whether or not this incident actually happened, the enduring presence of this thread shows how deeply ingrained trains are in hard-hitting, crowd-pleasing cinema. From silent movies from the dawn of cinema to modern blockbusters like High-speed traintrains have been practically woven into the history of cinema.

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Part of that is simply due to the birth of feature films. The last two decades of the 19th century saw cinema begin to emerge as a storytelling tool, with artists like Georges Méliès began making titles that would qualify as genre cinema in the 1890s. Wilbur and Orville Wright, meanwhile, would not create the first working airplane until 1903. Commercial airlines that would make the power of flight more accessible to the general public would not begin to emerge until 1914. In the meantime, trains remained the mode default transport. over great distances. This meant that by the 1910s there were already decades of films, no matter how short and simplified, that featured trains in varying degrees of prominence. In other words, trains were already an integral part of cinematic language.


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The popularity of trains in the cinema will materialize especially in 1903 when The Great Train Robbery made its debut. As the title suggests, trains played a big part in this movie and were a big part of its most exciting sets. The possibilities of the unique kind of spectacle trains could participate in were suddenly more apparent than ever. The highly influential nature of The Great Train Robbery also established certain images and motifs that future Western films would indulge in. It’s not like movies set in the Wild West would have avoided trains if there hadn’t been The Great Train Robbery. However, the huge financial and critical success of this silent film certainly made mainstream audiences realize the appeal of train-based storytelling to mainstream audiences.


In the years after The Great Train Robbery, planes would increasingly become commonplace parts of everyday life and enable global connections that the people behind the trains could only dream of. However, even with the ubiquity of air travel, airplanes remained as popular as ever on movie screens. One of the main reasons for this was a genre that dominated the cinematic landscape of the first half of the 20th century: westerns. Most of the entries in this genre were period pieces set in eras that could never even comprehend the plane.

However, these sections of American history made extensive use of the train, and countless Westerns have made sure to reflect this reality. Even outside of Westerns, however, trains have remained a common feature in movies. This can be partially attributed to the number of working class people who used the train compared to other modes of transport. If you live in a place like New York, as early as the 1910s the subway system was an essential part of everyday life. In addition, this means of transport was significantly cheaper and more accessible than the plane. Theatrical films, which relied heavily on the general population to generate ticket sales, had no choice but to make heavy use of trains if they wanted to resonate with the ordinary moviegoer.


It didn’t hurt that trains were simply better backdrops for dramatic stories. When you’re on a classic steam train, you have a bit more room for mobility and not everyone is cramped in a small space (modern trains, with seats reminiscent of what you’d see in airplanes, or your average subway car are less grippy to this). Thus, there are more opportunities for the characters to meet or move. As depicted in classic movies, forms a more dynamic space that can transport characters over great distances, but doesn’t have to adhere to visual stagnation.

It’s hard to imagine a film like Strangers on a train, for example, working on an airplane. Everyone is so crammed into the planes that someone would catch this elaborate murder plan! On a train, however, it’s much more believable that there could be room for two people to talk in semi-isolation about something crummy. Likewise, the Hercule Peroit mystery Murder on the Orient Express would be more difficult to execute on an airplane. The inherent flexibility of passenger travel on conventional trains means anyone can guess who might be behind the titular murder. And on the examples of movies whose stories were able to skyrocket thanks to being put on a train.


The spectacular utility of the trains is also evident in their malleability. Just as they can easily be used to allow characters to interact in a thriller, they can also be described as cramped environments whose claustrophobic nature heightens the plot tension of a film. Titles like snowdrops Where Train to Busan wouldn’t work as well if told outside the limited confines of a train. The fact that you can tell all sorts of stories, from the most relaxed and open to the most tight-knit and uncertain, aboard these ships is testament to the flexibility of the trains that fire the imaginations of screenwriters of all eras.

Even the simple details of train tours make them more appealing in movies than on planes. Take what you can see out the window, for example. You can experience magnificent views outside of an aircraft, but you’re usually too far off the ground to understand what’s going on below. That might be beautiful on its own, but it lacks the specific details that can make or break a shot in a movie. The trains, on the other hand, are directly on the ground. You can make out everything happening right outside your window, whether it’s famous landmarks, beautiful landscapes or even, in the case of movies like The girl on the train, witness to key plot details. The way the views outside a train window can be used for anything from spectacle to advancing a narrative further reinforces why movies love this mode of transportation so much. .


In the modern era, the heavy presence of trains in movies also doesn’t detract from the fact that this form of transportation is massively marketable. Just look at it Thomas the Chariot Engine franchise, which has raised untold sums from toys based on its various talking train characters. In the same way, The Polar Express has become a Christmas staple thanks to the number of trinkets and ornaments you can sell depending on the titular train. True, not every movie with a train dominates the toy aisle (no version of The taking of Pelham 1 2 3 spawned a lot of freight), but the enduring popularity of trains provides another of countless reasons why Hollywood would be so drawn to this mode of transportation.

Since the days of 1896, trains and movies have been an inseparable duo that can accomplish anything. Just as the art of cinema can house countless types of genres and tones, trains can also house stories ranging from unstoppable at Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Considering all the ways cinematic depictions of trains can benefit screenwriters and resonate personally with audiences, it’s no wonder moviegoers love trains.

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