Though the celebration moves around the calendar a bit more than in the past and is therefore a bit difficult to track down (no pun intended), today is National Train Day. At least it is here at Elisberg Industries, and that's good enough as a starting point. You won't find it on any calendars, but National Train Day (or as it's been known around these parts in the past as "Let's Make Chris Dunn's Head Explode Day") is nonetheless still one of the most joyous holidays of the year. And "in the past" is a very important phrase to keep in mind. More on that coming up. As well as a new feature at the end.
(I've always posted photos of trains here on National Train Day, but on my trip to Chicago the other week, I stopped in at the Art Institute and saw one of my favorite painting by Claude Monet, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877. I realized that that's what should go in this honored spot.)
For our part here, we celebrate National Train Day on these pages by posting a list of the greatest train movies. These are films in which trains are absolutely central to the story. Where a train is the driving force of the tale, without which you can’t properly describe the plot.
(Think of it like the classic and beloved Santa Claus song, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Santa Claus isn't actually in the song at all. He hasn't even shown up yet. In most ways, it's about "you" and what you should do -- or better not do. But even though there's not a hint of Santa Claus even appearing in the song, without Santa Claus...there's no song.)
For years, this has causes an ongoing mass of consternation when the inveterate Chris Dunn goes totally mental, trying annually to explain unsuccessfully why The Bridge on the River Kwai is supposedly not a train movie, yet Throw Momma from the Train is. Every year, he he has spun out of control in disorderly circles trying to make his point, that The Bridge on the River Kwai is not about trains. And as I say every year -- he's right, it’s not “about trains.” But then I never said it was – just that it was a “train movie.” And more to the point, specifically a great train movie. Not merely a film with a train in it, but one where a train is the driving force of the story, without which you can’t properly describe the plot. (By contrast, Throw Momma from the Train could just as easily be "Throw Momma from the Funicular." Or you could probably even tell the story cutting the train sequence entirely and instead write in some other scene to bridge the plot points. No pun intended...)
I note here that Throw Momma from the Train finally moved up a notch two years ago and now on the Honorable Mention list -- in part because it does have the word "Train" in the title and a train sequence so, given the perspective of time, it does at least support that limited standard, and in part as a salve to Mr. Dunn, so that he would be able to get some rest rather than spend another completely feverish week, ranting about The Bridge on the River Kwai.
But then the remarkable happened. Some would say the impossible. This is not a joke. A few months back, I received a note from Chris Dunn which goes to show why he is not only inveterate but deeply honorable and is held in high esteem in these parts, even despite him being a St. Louis Cardinals fan. The note said -- and again, this is 100% true --
I hope you are sitting down because I am going to admit... well, defeat.
Our favorite movie is on TCM at the moment. While Alec Guinness is rallying his men from Sick Bay to come help complete the bridge, William Holden and his fellow commandos are closing in.
I watch this movie almost every time I come across it but tonight I watched just to prove you wrong. I specifically watched all the scenes where they planned to go into the jungle to blow up the bridge. The bridge, the bridge, the bridge - that is always the target. The only target. It’s hardly a movie about a train if their objective is a bridge. That’s always been my argument.
But then... dammit, it happened. A scene I hadn’t recalled. They’re in the jungle on their way to do their job when they get a radio alert from HQ: intelligence has learned of a special train making an inaugural run timed to the opening of the bridge. They get excited because now their mission is to get the bridge and the train.
Gosh darn you all to heck, Bob Elisberg. I loved telling you how wrong you were to include this on your list. Now I can’t!
And there you have it. The smoking gun to prove with Mr. Christopher Dunn is mentioned so often around these parts that he has become inveterate. Few people with so much at stake to prove another wrong, wrong, wrong would take it upon themselves to write such a gracious mea culpa to acknowledge that that person was right, right, right all along. Quite the guy. And now you know. If only he wasn't so warped as to like the St. Louis Cardinals.
And there you have it that The Bridge on the River Kwai's spot on the list of Great Train Movies has no dissenting voices this year. As it shouldn't. If someone else pops up in subsequent years, I will refer them to Mr. Dunn and his perfectly alphabetized spice rack.
I should also note that, since the list is fluid, we've added another new movie to the list of Great Train Films, the 1986 film Tough Guys, a fun and notable train movie that re-teamed Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, 22 years after their last movie together. They play a couple of elderly ex-cons finally out of prison who are unable to adjust to very modern life, and ultimately decide to jump back into their old profession from the distant past as train robbers. (To give proper credit, it was recommended to me in a tweet by Bobby Matthews who goes by the Twitter handle of Bob the Writer.)
I'm also going to add a Special Mention this year for a book. It's one that I read last year, Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose. It's a superb and fascinating history of the competition between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific when building the transcontinental railroad.
And as I noted in the past, though something I think is likely very obvious, I love train movies. Here is the current list of Great Train Movies.
Around the World in 80 Days
Back to the Future 3
The Bridge on the River Kwai
The Darjeeling Limited
Emperor of the North
The Great Locomotive Chase
The Great Train Robbery
The Lady Vanishes
Murder on the Orient Express
The Narrow Margin
North by Northwest
Night Train to Munich
Strangers on a Train
Von Ryan’s Express
Throw Momma from the Train
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
The Greatest Show on Earth
At the Circus
Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose (book)
I've always decided to add a new feature this year -- a scene from one of the Great Train Movies. And what better way to inaugurate this than with a sequence from near the end of...The Bridge on the River Kwai.