Trains and Cinema: A 150-Year-Long Story

What do trains and cinema have in common? Much more than one might initially think. Let's envision this relationship as a track. Two lines that started to run parallel in the steam of the late 19th century, traversed the entire last century, and now race at high speed into the present. To start bringing these two protagonists together, let's envision this railroad, and see it unfurl like the frames of a film reel. Let's listen as the clatter of the rail overlaps with the whir of a camera reel. We embark on a journey into the history of trains and cinema, beginning with their first encounter: Paris, January 6, 1896.


Rails like filmstrips: the revolution of motion

It is considered the first film ever projected: "L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat" (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station). In just 45 seconds of footage, Auguste and Louis Lumière inaugurated the partnership between trains and cinema. It is a 33mm black and white silent film. Legend has it that many of the early viewers gathered in the small Parisian cinema left the room before it ended. 

The camera is positioned beside the tracks of a small station in Provence. It's a sharply angled shot, particularly deep. From the distance, a steam locomotive is seen approaching. It gets closer and closer, eventually filling the entire frame, and it doesn't appear to stop. That train didn't crash into the theater as some of the more engaged viewers had feared, but it marked the beginning of a new era.

The train and cinema are the two novelties that mark the beginning of the 20th century, the century of mechanics and industrialization. What unites them is a common denominator: the revolution of motion.

Another key aspect of the relationship between trains and cinema is storytelling. If film is one of the most noble (the seventh art) and fortunate mediums for telling stories, stations have been arenas with incredible imaginative potential from the beginning. They are places of departures and arrivals, farewells and reunions – narrative and emotional focal points. It's not surprising, then, the rich collection of iconic trains on film, of movies where locomotives and stations vie with actors for the role of protagonists.


Sold Out Tickets! The Most Famous Trains in Cinema

On the carriages of film sets, unconditional and tumultuous loves were born, hopes were found, conflicts ignited, heinous crimes committed, and fears, emotions, and legends were nurtured. Stations and trains have been a great source of inspiration for cinema and beyond, playing a crucial role in shaping the entire cinematic imagination. If we could embark on a cinematic-railway journey starting from the iconic "L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat" and arrive at the present day, here are the most interesting stations we would encounter along the way.

  • "The Train," 1964, directed by John Frankenheimer
    Le Train is a masterpiece of French cinema set during World War II. The plot revolves around the desperate struggle to prevent a train loaded with art treasures stolen by the Nazis from reaching Germany. Directed masterfully by John Frankenheimer, the film creates a constant sense of tension as the train – laden with priceless artifacts – races through the French countryside. The brilliant performances by Jeanne Moreau and Burt Lancaster convey a sense of urgency and drama that remain etched in the viewer's memory.
  • "Murder on the Orient Express," 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet
    A milestone in the mystery genre, set aboard one of the most famous trains in cinema. Based on Agatha Christie's renowned novel, the film immerses us in the luxury and elegance of the iconic Orient Express train. The story follows the detective Hercule Poirot, masterfully portrayed by Albert Finney, as he tries to solve a mysterious murder for which the suspects are the train's passengers. The majestic setting on board the train creates a unique atmosphere of tension and mystery. Director Sidney Lumet highlights the allure of train travel, supported by a memorable cast including Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, and Lauren Bacall.
  • "The Silver Streak," 1976, directed by Arthur Hiller
    From a classic mystery, we shift to the slapstick comedy genre. "The Silver Streak" is a film that has set the standard, an excellent example of how a train journey can lead to a series of hilarious situations.The plot follows a group of eccentric and quirky characters who find themselves on board a steam train traveling across North America. The comedic episodes unfold rapidly, ranging from unexpected to surreal. Director Arthur Hiller captures the madcap and unpredictable side of the train, bringing out its comedic potential.
  • "The Polar Express," 2004, directed by Robert Zemeckis
    When it comes to railway cinema, we can't overlook a film that enchants both children and adults, adding the allure of trains to the magic of Christmas. Based on Chris Van Allsburg's illustrated book, the animated film takes viewers on an incredible journey aboard the Polar Express, the magical train bound for the North Pole. The combination of remarkable animation, engaging storytelling, and the holiday atmosphere makes "The Polar Express" a modern classic that celebrates the magic of trains, a wonder that particularly resonates with kids.
  • “Transsiberian”, 2008, Brad Anderson 
    Our journey takes us into the vastness of Russia aboard a legendary train. "Transsiberian" is a psychological thriller that follows a couple of travelers, portrayed by Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer, as they traverse the heart of Russia. What begins as a journey to rekindle their relationship quickly turns into a nightmare as they become embroiled in a murder. The train becomes a dark and mysterious microcosm where true identities are revealed, and tension escalates with the train's progress. Director Brad Anderson uses the railway setting as a perfect arena for a chilling and intense story.
  • "Snowpiercer," 2013, directed by Bong Joon-ho
    Seven years before his triumphant three Oscar wins for "Parasite" in 2020, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho brought to the big screen a dystopian, visionary, almost claustrophobic film. We find ourselves in a future where the world is covered by an unstoppable ice age. The last survivors of humanity travel aboard the Snowpiercer train, divided into rigid social classes. The train becomes a microcosm of inequality, oppression, and rebellion. An allegory to explore painfully relevant social and political themes. The film provides an analysis of human dynamics within the enclosed and constantly moving perimeter of a train on its tracks.


HZERO Museum: Cinema Halls, The Train Show

In the heart of Florence, there's a place where cinema and trains coexist. Until now, we've seen them as parallel worlds, but it's time to discuss a true meeting point. This place is HZERO - the railway modeling museum. Born in the former Ariston cinema in Florence, it now houses one of the largest train layouts in Europe. Every day, in over 280 square meters of landscape, hundreds of trains go in countless directions and narratives. They cross bridges, cities, and tunnels, traverse straightaways and turning points, collecting stories, carrying characters, inspirations, dreams.

Entering the audience of HZERO is a bit like stepping through the red curtain of a cinema: you will find yourself in another place where time and distances work differently. It's a front-row show - suitable for everyone - about the magic of motion, the same magic that has driven railways and cameras worldwide for over 150 years.