Romance of rail in a starring role

Trains and railways have provided the backdrop to many great movies. Jon Bryant remembers some classic scenes to get film buffs off the couch and on the tracks.

A cloud of locomotive smoke is the film editor's perfect tool for shifting to a new scene and it was used in one of the first films ever made, the Lumiere brothers' L'Arrivee d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. Shown to an audience in 1895, some of whom reputedly tried to flee the theatre, it featured a steam train stopping at La Ciotat station in the south of France. With the camera rolling, passengers stepped from the footplates, ran alongside the engine and pulled themselves up into the carriages.

Fifty years later, another generation of passengers started falling in love in station refreshment rooms — and the romance lives on. We look back at some golden moments on the silver screen and at how you can come close to re-creating the journeys — but, we hope, without the murders or revolutions.

Doctor Zhivago

Repeating Yuri Zhivago's flight across the icy wastes of northern Russia in a cattle train may not be everyone's idea of a holiday, least of all if you have an aggressive, mad-eyed dissident as your travelling companion, played by a young Klaus Kinski in David Lean's 1965 film.

Bundled up in overcoats, sitting in a filthy carriage with a bubbling, slopping potato stew in place of a buffet car, Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) stare at other people's misery in a carriage that looks more like a prison camp. The grimy inmates are bound for the gulag with a contingent of Red Guards. They have to crash through ice to sweep out the dirty straw on the carriage floor.

Meanwhile, the train, with red flags fluttering, thrashes through the perfect white, snowy scenery — symbol of a new powerful Soviet futurism. Zhivago steps off the train when it is held up and gazes at the distant Ural Mountains; he thinks he is free. The long journey is a lot nicer today in a luxury train with a proper buffet car and flushing toilets.

RELIVE THE ROUTE World Expeditions' Trans-Siberian Explorer is a 23-day journey on the Trans-Siberian for $6990, excluding flights, in a second-class four-berth cabin. Upgrades available at extra cost. Next departure June 12. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.

North by Northwest

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It's a case of mistaken identity. In Hitchcock's most stylish, light-hearted thriller, Roger Thornhill (played by the charming, grey-suited Cary Grant) is pursued across America by mysterious agents.

Thankfully, it gives him a chance to travel on what was known at the time as the most famous train in the world, the 20th Century Limited, a luxury express service operating between New York and Chicago.

After walking along the crimson-carpeted platform, Thornhill jumps on to the train and proceeds down one of Hitchcock's long-shot corridors before bumping into the impeccably glamorous Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who hides him from the dim policemen chasing him. The duplicitous Kendall has arranged for him to sit opposite her in the dining car.

He orders a Gibson cocktail and asks her: "What do you do besides lure men to their doom on the 20th Century Limited?"

The charcoal grey of the train and the smooth, buffed lines of the carriage furniture were perfect symbols of a new – luxury – America, which was beginning to be obsessed with espionage and winning the Cold War. Eight years later, the train was discontinued.

Travelling across the US by rail is still one of the most romantic ways to see the country, even if not on this iconic train.

RELIVE THE ROUTE Amtrak operates the 49 Lake Shore Limited from Penn Station, New York, to Union Station, Chicago, a 19-hour journey, with dining car, lounge and checked-luggage service. Coach tickets from $US84 ($97) a person; sleepers from an additional $US184. Amtrak also runs the California Zephyr from Chicago's Union Station to San Francisco's Emeryville Station (with a bus transfer to San Francisco's city centre), a 53-hour journey, with dining, lounge and checked-luggage service. Coach tickets from $US145 a person; sleepers from an additional $US262. See amtrak.com.

Out of Africa

A steam locomotive snakes through the grassy plains towards Nairobi as Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) gently reminisces: "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills."

John Barry's sweeping strings accompany the puffing train as the camera pans back to show how insignificant is the wisp of steam issuing from the engine as it disappears across the plains. Blixen wears a cream and blue braided outfit done up to the throat, with a man's blue tie, and stands at the back of the carriage with her deerhound on a lead.

The next morning, the train pulls up to allow hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) to load enormous elephant tusks on to the back, while Streep keeps an eye on her Limoges china and glassware stacked up in the next carriage.

Finch Hatton says he won't be boarding the train and she looks disappointed. So are we – but we know the two of them will end up together ... if only he'd caught the train that day instead of going by plane.

RELIVE THE ROUTE Kenya Railways runs passenger trains between Mombasa and Nairobi three times a week; trains generally leave in the evening, taking 13 to 14 hours between the cities. A first-class sleeper costs from $US65 ($75) a person, twin share. Includes dinner and breakfast in the restaurant car. Book at the station or in advance at eastafricashuttles.com/train.htm. Adventure World has a 15-night South Africa Panorama tour priced from $5426, with a two-night Blue Train extension between Cape Town and Pretoria. Phone 1300 363 055, see adventureworld.com.au.

Murder on the Orient Express

Anyone who was anyone in 1974 was in Sidney Lumet's version of Murder on the Orient Express. It was Albert Finney's only outing as Hercule Poirot but a cast including Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar), Sean Connery, John Gielgud and Lauren Bacall makes up for some of the bizarre accents and inadequate moustaches.

A stopped watch in the victim's pocket, a long list of overacting suspects and heavily rehearsed alibis made it the first classic, big-budget Agatha Christie.

The thick snow outside (filming took place in the Jura Mountains in France), which blocks the train, heightens the trapped feeling of the passengers inside the coach.

"Has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room?" asks Poirot, inspecting the murder scene. There are definitely far too many props for one film. It seems that on the Orient Express, no one wants for anything, whether it's white gloves for sleeping, bowler hat supports or moustache protectors. The train is a fantasy of decadence, charged by a furnace, crashing through the plains of eastern Europe.

A decade earlier, James Bond (Sean Connery) has a brutal, claustrophobic and exhilaratingly vicious fight against SPECTRE assassin Red Grant aboard the same train in From Russia with Love, yet Murder on the Orient Express somehow seems more fitting and civilised for a train that enabled members of the refined and wealthy West to visit the mysterious East, while all the time cosseting them inside the opulent comfort of their first-class carriages.

RELIVE THE ROUTE The Orient-Express Group has a two-day, one-way journey from London to Venice from $3700 a person. Includes all table d'hote meals and accommodation on board, based on twin share. The train leaves London's Victoria Station about 10.45am and arrives in Venice the following afternoon at 5.52pm. The company also offers a Brighton Murder Mystery day trip on the British Pullman. Phone 1800 000 395, see vsoe.com and orient-expresstrains.com/uk.

The Darjeeling Limited

Slumdog Millionaire may have won the awards – and it certainly had a lot of platform scenes – but for Indian train action, Wes Anderson's 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited is invincible. In the film, three oddball brothers embark on an enforced bonding trip across India – carrying a lot of baggage.

The train used was handpainted by local truck decorators, who spent weeks adding elephants, temples and cricket matches to the carriage sides.

It's a piece of art and the brothers' ochre and kingfisher blue suite is the most expansive carriage ever seen on a train.

Anderson insisted on shooting the entire film while the train was moving, so the juddering and pulsating is authentic, carried along by a mix of local Bengali rhythms, '70s rock and Beethoven.

The brothers think they want to grow closer, yet have no idea where they are going. This is why they need to be in a rail movie not a road movie – the fixed tracks give them no choice. Until, of course, the train gets lost.

RELIVE THE ROUTE Rail Plus Australia has an eight-day, seven-night return trip on the Palace on Wheels train from Delhi, with stops at Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur. Departures every Wednesday until the end of April cost $4321 a person in a deluxe double suite or $5791 for singles, excluding air fares. Phone 1300 555 003, see railplus.com.au.

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