Trains. I mean who doesn’t like trains? Bullet trains, freight trains, model trains. How can you not like them? The movies have certainly had loads of fun with trains. For decades we’ve been give one great train scene after another. Today I’m looking at five of the very best to ever grace the big screen. Now obviously with so many to choose from (and there are TONS) I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. Still I have no problem calling these five movie train scenes absolutely phenomenal.
#5 – “The Fugitive” (1993)
It pained me to leave movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “Before Sunrise”, and “Spider-Man 2” off this list. That should tell you how much I love the explosive train derailment scene in the 1993 thriller “The Fugitive”. Wrongly accused Harrison Ford is trying to escape from a crashed prison bus laying across railroad tracks. A train barrels towards him and slams into the bus just as Ford flies out of the window. The train derailment that follows is absolutely stunning.
#4 – “Skyfall” (2012)
There is no way to document all of the incredible over-the-top action scenes that have become staples of the James Bond franchise. And it just so happens there is one which is a perfect fit for this list. “Skyfall” opens with one of the coolest train scenes in movie history. 007 uses feet, fists, bullets and even a huge excavator as he fights a mercenary on top of a speeding train. Through tunnels and over a bridge, right up to its big splash finish.
#3 – “Mission: Impossible” (1996)
Without a doubt the signature scene in Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible”comes at the very end. You know the one I’m talking about. Tom Cruise’s IMF agent Ethan Hunt atop a speeding bullet train on the heels of the mole (I won’t spoil who) who framed him for killing his team. Oh, and to make it even more electric, the mole plans to escape on a helicopter that’s tailing the train. I’ll leave it there but look it up if you haven’t seen it.
#2 – “The General” (1926)
Exactly which train scene do you pick out of the many featured in Buster Keaton’s silent classic “The General”? I mulled over several of the film’s great scenes before ultimately settling on one of Keaton’s most iconic movie moments. Some have called it the most expensive shot in silent movie history. A Union Army train makes an ill-advised attempt to cross a burning wooden bridge but plunges into the river as the cavalry watches from the bank. The set piece was incredible then and still is today.
#1 – “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)
The train robbery in Andrew Dominik’s brilliant “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is not only one of the best train sequences, but it’s one of my favorite scenes ever shot. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins is at his best in the buildup, capturing the dim glow from the bandits’ lanterns, the vibrations of the tracks, the headlight of the train penetrating the forest as it rounds a curve. And of course you get the robbery itself. Simply put, it is sublime filmmaking.
And those are my picks. There are so many great train scenes I hated to leave off. Now it’s your turn to help. Let me know what you think of my list and please share what would have made yours.
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I’ve only seen a couple of these (Fugitive and MI) but its been a long time. Fugitive I remember well. It set the precedent for giant mechanical objects hurling towards a person trying to get away. The only two I can think of about trains weren’t necessarily scenes but may have had some freeze frames that were good, but the train played a major role: “Emperor of the North” and the more recent “Snowpiercer.”
I thought about Snowpiercer and how the train was such a pivotal part of the movie. But I hard time thinking of a particular scene. For some reason I can’t remember Emperor of the North. I need to look it up.
Ernest Borgnine as train conductor who knocks hobos off of “his” train. Lee Marvin as a hobo trying to stay alive.
Oh wow. I love the cast.
I included it in a Podcast on the Lamb last year, about minute 44. https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/lambcast/episodes/2019-08-29T15_52_11-07_00
That train scene in Jesse James was so brilliantly shot. I’ve only seen that and Skyfall from your list. I’d probably throw in the Snowpiercer with the boy running with the torch because it’s also a beautifully shot scene and any part of Train to Busan.
Ok, Train to Busan was one my short list and among those I was hoping someone would mention. That Jesse James shot though….wow. It’s absolutely stunning.
Stand by Me comes to mind.
That’s a good one. And it’s one of that film’s signature moments.
I love your choices. Must have been hard to decide.
Yep. Soooooo many to choose from. Once you start looking at it it’s surprising how many train scenes are out there (my daughter instantly chose The Polar Express).
Aw that’s sweet! You go with what you know, right?
Most people hate the Johnny Depp Lone Ranger, I’m not one of them, and the Train sequence at the climax of the film is a blast. A Combo of humor suspense and surprise. It also goes on for several minutes. If it’s just a great shot you are looking for, the opening of Hard Times and Bite the Bullet have some beautifully staged train arrival scenes. Also the crane shot pulling away from the train in Once Upon a time in the West.
I admit to being disappointed by the Lone Ranger although I get a kick out of that train sequence. Once Upon a Time in the West immediately came to my mind but I didn’t include it simply because it has made so many of my lists in the past. One of my all-time favorite movies.
A very good round up! I must say it’s hard to beat that train scene in the Fugitive! 🙂 As an additional train scene, I do have a soft spot for the train scenes in Back to the Future III 🙂 My dad and I used to watch that movie together all the time!
Oh wow, I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember the scene from Back to the Future III. I’m going to look it up!
Ah yes!!!! I have nothing new to say about that list as those are great scenes with trains.
Thanks! Soooo many to pick from. It was a lot tougher than I expected.
Nice post Keith. Fun to read. I haven’t seen your number 1 yet. but Mission Impossible really captures the effects of velocity. SkyFall and The Fugitive have big destructive scenes. I might just add Batman Begins, Under Siege 2, End of Days, and Speed. but am curious, have you seen Runaway Train?
Oh yes. Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. Haven’t seen it in a while but it’s a movie I hoped someone would mention. It’s been a while since I last saw it.
the ending of Runaway Train really stayed in mind. didnt fully understand it but it was very original
I’ve seen all of these movies, but for some reason the details of the train scenes have faded from my brain. I do remember a night scene of a train in Jesse James that was quite striking visually. The movie I thought of right away was “How the West Was Won”, maybe because it plays on tv so often and I’ve caught that scene a few times. I also remember Clint Eastwood drove a train into a bar in Joe Kidd, and of course at the end of Silver Streak the train crashes through the train station.
Good mentions (forgot about the Joe Kidd one). Westerns have been well represented over the years when it comes to train scenes, haven’t they?
Going with Fast Five. After this scene, I knew the “hype” around this one was real.
Ohhhh I remember that one well. Still the best FF movie in my opinion.
Definitely agree on Skyfall! And I love the train scene in Spider-Man 2.
Haven’t seen the others, though.
Oh that Spidey 2 train scene is soooo good!