I was thinking about trains in media a few days ago so I thought I'd come up with a list which turns out to have numbered six. It's not a top six list; I wouldn't even necessarily say these are the best things ever involving trains though they could be. I certainly love each of them but there's no hard and fast hierarchy here. I just felt like listing these for whatever reason. Sorry if that's not enough drama for you.
Through the Looking Glass
This is Alice's first move across the chess board. She's a pawn and, as the Red Queen explains, "A pawn goes two squares in its first move, you know. So you'll go very quickly through the Third Square—by railway, I should think—and you'll find yourself in the Fourth Square in no time."
Alice finds herself in a carriage surrounded by strange people obsessed with confusing ideas of efficiency and time. One man across from her is wearing a suit made entirely of paper. As part of Lewis Carroll's larger parody of the adult world through the eyes of a child, this scene is a delightful impression of a child's perspective of being stuck temporarily in close quarters with a disorienting array of adults and their inevitably alien and silly motives and habits.
Galaxy Express 999 (銀河鉄道999)
Leiji Matsumoto's manga from the 1970s spawned an enormous franchise including television series and movies. The show is also based on a child's perspective of journeying by train, in this case Matsumoto translates the strange experience of travelling with his mother as child into a journey through space where the 999 is a locomotive capable of interstellar travel. The feeling of being attached to this mode of conveyance, which travels on a fixed track and stops and goes at fixed times and places, is used to aid the tension of visiting alien worlds.
Travel by train is and has long been an extremely prominent aspect of living in Japan so it's not hard to see why so many people were able to identify with this series. It's nostalgic and at the same time it provides a framing device for encountering the bizarre.
Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (千と千尋の神隠し, "Sen and Chihiro Hidden by the Gods", marketed in the West under the inferior title of Spirited Away)
Obviously influenced by Galaxy Express 999, the train sequence in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi even features a shadowy conductor almost identical to the one in Matsumoto's series. Like Through the Looking Glass and Galaxy Express 999, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi translates strangers from the child's point of view into mysterious beings. In this case, they seem to be shadow people with enough substance and form to imply personality and purpose but vague enough to frustrate the mind in attempts to know more. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi presents a gentler take, though, as Chihiro and her companions watch shadow passengers drift in and out of existence as they cross the seemingly endless, strange sea. The way the scene is shot is reminiscent of Shinji travelling by train through Tokyo-3 in Neon Genesis Evangelion where his depression isolates him while other passengers, embarking and disembarking, constitute a barely perceived phenomena.
"The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East."
Francis Ford Coppola uses the line directly from the book in his 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. The movie's expressionist use of imagery and sound is an inexhaustible wonder. In this first scene involving a train, Coppola transitions from Jonathan and Mina in a garden in London by pulling in on a peacock feather which dissolves into a dark train tunnel giving way to hills bathed in bloody light. Sounds of birds subtly transform into the more insistent howl of the train whistle.
As the quote suggests, Jonathan perceives the physical travel from one place to another as travel from one cultural context to another, from the familiar inexorably to the alien about which his mind has been taught to have apprehensions.
The 39 Steps
Trains figure prominently in many Alfred Hitchcock movies--The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt. But I chose The 39 Steps because the scene where Richard Hannay crosses by rail from England into Scotland puts him on the map of Scotland carried by the dead spy Annabella and into a lot of trouble. There's a great chase scene in the tight confines of the train cars and even outside for a terrifying moment. And of course there are strange people, including a woman Hannay hastily kisses in the hopes of throwing off his pursuers--it doesn't work, of course, the woman doesn't know him.
I Know Where I'm Going!
This 1945 romantic comedy by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger also features a significant journey by train from England to Scotland. In this case, Joan Webster, a pragmatic young woman who dreams with immense pleasure of marrying not so much her fiancé as the wealthy industrial company he owns. Her dream translates the rhythmic noise of the train engines as she sleeps into a mantra about how wonderfully sorted her life is. But this dissolves into the stranger image of the train crossing a line into tartan covered hills, a signal that Webster's not as unimaginative as she would perhaps like to be. The train carries her not to certainty but to a far more exciting and satisfying alien world of romance.