Catching The Last Train – Vanishing Ladies to the Third Reich

Film still from The Lady Vanishes with actors from left to right, Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Paul Lukas

I like trains! There is always something exciting, romantic and mysterious about them (unless you’ve been moved onto a replacement bus service which isn’t usually that romantic). But assuming your trip goes well, there’s so much to see from where you sit. What’s out of the window and, of course, the other people in your carriage. I can’t but help wonder why they’re travelling, where they’re going to, whether they’re happy or sad or holding a terrible secret in that orange, plastic, supermarket bag! Clearly I’ve been strongly affected by all the stories I’ve read with trains in them and, of course, all the films with a similar focus on train travel.

Film poster for Night Train to Munich

From my favourite stories, like E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children original 1906 book and the lovely 1970 film, to Emily Barr’s brilliant book The Sleeper (2013) which I’m hoping might one day be filmed. If you haven’t read it it’s a twisty turny mystery and will keep you guessing!

Aside from train related books, I’ve watched two black and white train thrillers very recently. My favourite, The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich, which I’d never seen before. It has many similarities to The Lady Vanishes in that a good portion of it is on a train and there’s a Nazi problem to be dealt with! Also both films have the wonderful Margaret Lockwood as the female protagonist and a couple of Englishmen (Charters and Caldicott played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) who have no idea what’s going on but still come out as heroes by the end.

Charters and Caldicott played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford

One of the things I find interesting about these films is that they remind me of what a film director friend told me – good films come from good stories! In the case of The Lady Vanishes (film release 1938) the original book was The Wheel Turns, written by Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) in 1936.Alfred Hitchcock directed the film in 1938 and took what was a very good mystery story and made it into a classic film thriller; full of typical Hitchcockian shades of suspense, fear and humour. He also does his usual cameo performance as a passenger outside the train,

Hitchcock cameo on The Lady Vanishes

Made a few years later, was Night Train to Munich. Directed by Carol Reed (famous for other films like The Fallen Idol and The Third Man) and based on a short story called Report on a Fugitive (n.b some online references suggest it was a book, but others say a short story. I’m imagining it might have been a long story or a novella. Sadly I can’t find it available anywhere) written by Gordon Wong Wellesley (1894-1980) an Australian screenwriter and novelist of Chinese descent. His writing credit gave him an Oscar nomination in 1942.

It has been noted that these two films are quite similar by having their important pivotal moments on a train, having the same actors in those pivotal roles, being set in or around the second world war and ending in a victory against fascism. As such, they could be viewed as British propaganda, but I think it was acceptable at those incredibly dangerous times. And propaganda with Charters and Caldicott can’t be too bad surely?

The Lady Vanishes film poster

I’m all for victories against fascism! I’m also all for black and white films with surprises, suspense, and humour, all of both these films manage. I like them both, but my heart will still mainly be with The Lady VanishesBecause as it shows a young woman bravely fighting to be heard and constantly being told she’s wrong. All to save her missing older female train companion and that still feels a very contemporary story for women everywhere.


Published by Yasmin Keyani


4 thoughts on “Catching The Last Train – Vanishing Ladies to the Third Reich

  1. Ah, I didn’t know that was from a book with a different title, so thank you for that detail! Yes, so many classic films set on trains, they were ubiquitous as a form of travel then, before universal car ownership.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so right. Before it was all about cars to get around it was trains! Dickens, working as a court reporter, took trains all around the country. That’s why I love them! (Should be state owned of course…) 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

      1. State owned, I agree but which state?! “Seven UK railways are operated or partly-operated by Dutch state railway Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), including Merseyrail, Scotrail and the West Midlands Railway,” according to Forbes. “Seven railways are operated fully or partly by French state railway SNCF, including Transport for Wales and the Thameslink.” It’s absolutely nuts, and especially Transport for Wales being partly owned by Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français – I didn’t know that till I just looked it up!

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      2. It’s crazy isn’t it? I say renationalise all the railways. And while you’re about it add the post office and the energy companies. The selling off of national ‘family silver’ from the eighties still gives me heartburn! 😂

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