Ninety Train Rides

When I was a child, my family used to travel from Britain to Italy most summers to stay with my Italian grand-parents. Every time we crossed the Channel I was sick. I was given all kinds of advice, sometimes from other passengers, and I tried hard to apply their methods.  I remember “stare at the horizon and don’t look at the waves” and “bend your head to the right every time there is a swell”. There was a different method every time but none of them worked. There was never a ferry on which I wasn’t sick. Once I thought I had succeeded in making the crossing unscathed but I threw up when we were only about fifty yards out from the harbour.

Perhaps this is why I became so fond of trains. Getting on in Calais or Boulogne was salvation. I fell in love with the sounds, the rhythm, the wild swinging as you passed from carriage to carriage. And I remember how much I liked the landscape of the North of France. And the grime and soot of the Gare du Nord in Paris. And the  prospect of buying a soft drink called Pschitt! from a platform vendor. (In French it is supposed to suggest the sound made when you open a fizzy drink bottle, but to the ears of a very young English boy it sounded much more excitingly outrageous).

Since then I have been on trains on four continents and a lot of those trips have been among my best travel experiences.So I was delighted  to come across an article in Salon magazine entitled “The Irresistible Appeal of the Train Movie” , which discussed the best film sequences with trains. Number one on the list was Days of Heaven, a film I liked a lot, but to be honest I didn’t remember the opening sequence below.

There are nine more films discussed in this article but it  didn’t mention my favourite sequence, so my first reaction was: what? no Renoir! La Bête Humaine with Jean Gabin as an engine driver of a French (!!!) train running from Paris to  Le Havre! I was going to comment and then I saw that there were already 78 comments from other people all insisting they knew of a better train film.

One of them suggested Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film The Man with a Movie Camera saying to  watch the train from 0.55 but it is a pity not to watch the clip from the start with the opening windows and the trams and people in, I think, Odessa. I particularly like the bicycle mail cart.

There is not much train in it but I was completely mesmerized by Vertov as always. Whenever I look at any of Vertov’s films he just seems to carry my mind off into the screen with him. I realise I am smiling and then after ten minutes I think: what am I doing? All I seem to be doing is looking and my mind has been kidnapped. Perhaps he should have his own verb and not have to borrow Mr. Mesmer’s. When I watch Vertov I am vertovised.

And here then (I put this up once before but it is worth repeating) is the opening sequence of La Bête Humaine. It really should have been on the list.

There are lots of other train rides mentioned in those 78 comments. And, if you really have nothing to do, you can also take a virtual ride on the Trans-Siberian railway using Google Maps. As you go, you can choose to listen to “rumble of wheels, Russian radio, Valerij Scshezhin (balalaika), Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace), Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls), or Ilya If, Evgeny Petrov (The Golden Calf)”. I only made it as far as the suburbs of Moscow the first time round. Then I discovered you can skip to scenic points along the route so I saw a bit of Lake Baikal. “Karymskoye village foggy morning” also sounds interesting.

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