This is a listing of films we know of on various aspects of nomadic rail culture. Except as noted, we have copies of these films available in our library. Please let us know if you are aware of other films we should list or if have more info about some of these listings. And we would be happy to receive copies of additional films for our library. Note: Some of the listing include mini-reviews. These have come from a number of sources and are, of course, subjective and to not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of BBCRC members.
Note: We are looking for copies of Slack Action and End of the Line for our library. "www.railserve.com/trainmovies" has a comprehensive list of general interest railroading movies.
The American Hobo 2003 Bobb "Santa Fe Bo" Hopkins/Super Chief Films
This is a documentary focused on the history and culture of hobos. It is narrated by actor Ernest Borgnine and includes interviews with, among others, author James Michener and country music legend Merle Haggard. This 2003 production appears to be a reworked and much improved version of the director's earlier film, Compass in the Blood: The American Hobo. The entire documentary can be viewed online.
Attack of the Stobe Hobo Jim Stobe 2012
Before his untimely death in late 2017, Jim Stobe became a Youtube sensation with dozens of 15 to 25 mini-documentaries of his freight travels around the US in search of beer stores and interesting things. This is his earlier full length movie. A later Stobe full length movie, also available on You Tube, is "Canada by Cargo Train". A search for Stobe the Hobo on Youtube will bring up many of his shorter documentaries, too numerous to list here, as well.
Beggars of Life 1928 William Wellman
Films depicting pre-Great Depression hoboing are rare. This is probably one of the best, featuring a girl on the lam after killing her abusive stepfather. She meets up with a boy and they ride trains around and have various adventures in trying to escape out of the country to Canada.
La Bestia (The Beast) 2011 Pedro Ultreras
Another documentary about the difficulties Central American refugees have in riding the rails of Mexico toward the US border.
The Billion Dollar Hobo 1977 Stuart E. McGowan
A silly movie about a spoiled guy who inherits his wealthy uncle's fortune — but only if he first spends some time riding the rails like his uncle did in the Great Depression before he got rich. Various adventures ensue.
Boxcar Bertha 1972 Martin Scorcese
Only loosely based on the book of the same name and set in the south in the Great Depression, the lead actor (Barbara Hershey) meets up with a union organizer (David Carridine). Together they battle anti-union forces and then start a life of crime and train hopping.
Catching Out 2002 Sarah George
Shot over several years, Catching Out follows several main rail-riding characters — Lee, Jessica, and the tramp couple Switch and Baby Girl (who lived at Black Butte in the early 1990s) — and explores their changing relationships to trains and nomadic travel. A bit too focused on formal interviews on living room couches if you are looking for lots of good train riding scenes, but still with some good insights. The film includes some classic scenes, including of Hobo Lee in his long lost tree house in the redwoods and in earlier television footage during a confrontation at hunt saboteur campaign action.
Cure for the Crash: The Art of Train Hoppin' 2011 Brian Paul/Inner City Organic Pictures
Set in New Orleans shortly after Katrina, Cure for the Crash is part documentary and part fictional hobo fantasy. The documentary side includes lots of interviews with train hoppers in the New Orleans area and some interesting portrayals of the town in those days including lots of socializing, drinking/drugs and the emerging folk-punk music scene. The fictional part involves a woman taking a cross-country freight train trip looking for a lost Katrina-refugee boyfriend. The lines between the documentary and the story are very blurred — which is at times amusing but more often annoying. There are lots of good scenes, some good train cinematography and music and I wanted to like this film. But then there would be these other distracting scenes — mostly involving the director's own poor acting and self-indulgent antics — that had me cringing to the point that it made the movie difficult to enjoy.
Emperor of the North 1973 Robert Aldrich
A Hollywood classic starring Lee Marvin as A#1, a famous hobo, and Ernest Borgnine as "Shack", a cruel railroad bull. With lots of dramatic scenes along the way they battle each other from one end of the high line to the other. And of course the good guy wins.
The End of the Line Dana Mozer
A well-done but hard to find satirical look at the Britt Hobo Convention in the late 1980s by a then Portland-based film maker.
Freeload 2014 Dan Skaggs
A documentary shot over the course of a year (2011-12) by an experienced train rider, Freeload follows the lives of several young train riders. The film has won several documentary film awards. Highway Goat Productions. For further info see "freeloadmovie.net".
Free Ride 1997 David Murphy
An insider's look at the emerging punk/activist trainriding phenomena of the mid-1990s. Murphy follows the kids out to the Britt Hobo Convention, up to Minneapolis for some classic scavenging scenes with "Dumpy" and friends, out to an Earth First encampment in Oregon, and to an Active Resistance anarchist conference in Chicago. I don't know how well this film has stood the test of time, it feels a bit dated but still provides a good look at that time and place in train riding culture.
Fruitloop and Arwegian Rick Jeffery Shroyer
A hilarious animated short film featuring Iwegian Rick and Fruitloop by a North Carolina-based film student. Can be found on the Net.
The Great American Hobo 1994 Bob "Santa Fe Bo" Hopkins (director and producer)
A video produced for PBS by the National Hobo Association. More cheese than in all of Wisconsin.
Here Among the Sacrificed
An obscure film companion to the 1984 book by the same name written by Finn Wilcox with photographs by Steve R. Johnson. It documents the travels of some tramps along the West Coast in, I think, the late 1970s.
Hobo 1991 John T. Davis
Well done documentary by an Irish filmmaker. He follows "Beargrease" on a trip over the high line from Minneapolis to Seattle, stopping in many towns along the way.
The Infinite Border 2007 Juan Manuel Sepúlveda
This film by a Mexican documentary filmmaker, profiles a handful of the hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants who enter Mexico clandestinely each year en route to the promised land of the United States. Some are incarcerated and some are sent back, only to return undeterred. Some bear the brutal evidence of the dangers of riding the rails northward in the form of severed limbs.
An Injury to One 2002 Travis Wilkerson
A documentary about the labor history and devastation of Butte, Montana by the copper industry, focusing on the incident in 1917 when IWW organizer Frank Little was "slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow men".
Insult to Injury 2006 Burke Roberts
A fictional 29 minute film (director's cut is 55 minutes) set in the Great Depression focused on an encounter in a rolling boxcar between a white racist man who gets his foot cut off while jumping into the car and the black medical student who helps him into the car and, despite being rejected and repeatedly insulted, insists on trying to help him. Filmed at the Pacific Southwest rail museum out in the desert at Campo, near the Mexican border along the Carrizo Gorge Rwy. Overall worth a look, you need to be able to get past the occasional glimpse of a diesel (and diesel horn), not exactly appropriate for the mid-1930s, as well as some actors who seem more accustomed to live stage than being filmed. At times this makes it have the feel of a play being filmed rather than a movie.
Los Invisibles 2010 Marc Silver and Gael Garcia Bernal
A Mexican film also focused on the plight of Central American refugees in Mexico. It is a series of four stories and was produced with support from Amnesty International. It only tangentially focuses on riding the rails and lacks the types of action scenes of riding in Mexico that can be viewed on other Mexican documentaries. Can be seen on You Tube.
The Journey of Natty Gann 1985 Jeremy Kagan/Disney Films
A fictional depression-era tale of a teenage girl who is abandoned by her father in Chicago when he goes to look for work in the Pacific Northwest. Eventually she decides to ride freight trains west to find him, befriending a wild wolf in the process. Great train scenes, this movie is said to have inspired more than a few young women to hit the rails...
Long Gone 2003 Jack Cahill and David Eberhardt (co-producers)
Over the course of almost seven years Long Gone follows the intertwined lives of several tramps — Joshua Long Gone, Horizontal John, New York Slim, and Dog Man Tony — as they careen around the West encountering various up and downs in their lives. Over a briefer time span, the lives of several younger and less interesting riders are also portrayed. A compelling documentary, one of our favorites. With original soundtrack by Tom Waits and additional music by Charlie Musselwhite. Excellent cinematography by Greg Yolin and the co-producers. Available for purchase on ITunes.
Matewan 1987 John Sayles
A traveling union organizer arrives in a small trackside West Virginia town under the control of a large mining company and its thugs. While not directly about the IWW, the film depicts the type of dangerous and risky organizing campaigns that helped American workers come together and unionize to better their lives.
De Nadie (No One) 2005 Tin Dirdamal
The story of a Central American refugee's travels to the US in search of a better life.
Rail Kings 2005 Bobb "Santa Fe Bo" Hopkins (director and producer). Superchief Films. First released a few years earlier as Derailed.
A fictional on-the-rails murder-mystery movie featuring a "spoiled trust fund baby" off to find the rail-riding killer of his parents. Despite some cheesy acting and dialogue, and a plot that stretches believability in places, the film has good cinematography and many people find it entertaining. No matter where the "rail kings" catch out to, they always seem to end up in Dunsmuir... Short guest appearances by Ernest Borgnine and Roadhog USA.
The Railroad Man 1956 Pietro Germi
A tale of a railroader who spirals downhill as various misfortunes befall him. He eventually makes the mistake of becoming a scab during a strike action.
Reading Canada Backwards 1995 Steve Topping
A short arty film, Topping took over 12,000 photos while riding a series of trains across Canada all the way from Vancouver through Winnipeg to Montreal on CP, and then on CN out to Halifax. The photos are presented rapid-fire style over the course of nine minutes.
Red Signals 1927 J.P. McGowan
A silent black and white drama involving an undercover railroad detective who tries to get to the bottom of several suspicious train wrecks that have occurred.
Riding the High Iron 1976 Ned Judge and Ed Matney Moore on Monday WCCO TV
This was a made for TV documentary featured on a popular Twin Cities news magazine show, featuring newscaster Dave Moore. Very well done and a rare portrait of a train riding era not very well documented. You can download it for free.
Riding the Rails 1997 Michael Uys and Lexie Lovell
Originally broadcast as a PBS documentary, Riding the Rails is the story of the children the either ran away or were forced to leave home during the depression. In most movies the hobos riding the rails are shown as grown men and as bums. This movie debunks that myth and shows that most of the rail riders were teenage runaways. The story is told very effectively in a series of interviews with the survivors from this era and shows footage from old movies and newsreel. Most of survivors are now in their late 70s or 80s but were as young as 13 when they first ran away. These are very personal stories about children who had no hope of a better life at home and how they hopped boxcars trying to find something better. "www.ridingtherails-themovie.com"
Risking It All - Across Mexico: Chasing an Impossible Dream 2013 Al-Jazeera
Risking it All is an Al-Jazeera series of 25 minute documentaries. This episode covers the journey of an El Salvadoran couple as they make their way to America to start a better life encountering the many perils of riding trains through Mexico from Guatemala to the US.
Sin Nombre 2009 Cary Fukunaga
A well-done fictional portrayal of a family of Central American migrants traveling north through Mexico on the trains towards the US border. They encounter police, MS13 gang members and tragedy along the way. Very realistic photography on and around the trains.
Slack Action 2005 Shana Lawton
Train on the Brain 2000 Alison Murray
Alison Murray returns from Britain to her homeland of Canada, hooks up with some friends, and goes off on a cross-country rail trip through Canada and then the US. In the process she meets lots of riders and local wingnuts, enjoys the scenery, gets rained on and beat up by cops, takes some wrong turns, and finds her way to the Britt Hobo convention in Iowa before heading back to the West Coast. Some nice portrayals of the up and down rhythms of trainriding. As of 2008 available for sale on DVD.
El Tren de la Muerte 2009 Gustavo Granero
A documentary of a Central American riding the rails towards the US border. Spanish, no English sub-titles. Can be seen on You Tube, divided into 6 segments.
The Tramp 1915 Charles Chaplin (director and writer) - Essanay Films, 20 minutes, black and white, 16 mm.
In this comedic film, Chaplin portrays a persnickety tramp who rescues a beautiful woman from robbers and then falls in love with her. Upon discovering that she loves someone else, he takes to the road. The cast includes Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, and Paddy McGuire.
The Travelers Liz Garbus and Alison Ellwood. MTV News and Docs, late 1990s.
This was one of the first mainstream media documentaries of 1990s punk hobo culture, before the era of everyone and their cousin putting up hundreds of Youtube videos of the trainriding adventures. It focuses on "Ron" aka Mosca (R.I.P.). He is not the only one in the film who has sinced passed away from the rigors of this hard lifestyle making this film now a sentimental journey for those who knew these folks and others who were traveling during this period. Can be seen on YouTube
Which Way Home 2009 Rebecca Cammisa
Which Way Home is a feature documentary film that follows unaccompanied child migrants, on their journey through Mexico, as they try to reach the United States.
This film is so poor that the producers were apparently too embarrassed to put their names on it. Reportedly, they encouraged a lot of the violence they filmed by buying the kids whiskey and egging them on a totally unethical approach to filmmaking. Sickening shots of violence towards animals and women. The one redeeming feature is the opening action scene when the kids and film crew are riding on a piggyback train getting pursued by both two cop cars and a helicopter and they still get off the train and make a run for it! Can be seen on You-Tube.
Wendy and Lucy 2008 Kelly Reichardt
A sad tale of a young traveling woman and her dog caught in a downward spiral due to a series of misfortunes and bad choices. Not much train riding (until the closing scene) but you get a sense of what might bring one person to a point of needing to ride the rails. There are also some funny scenes of modern oogle culture filmed in the Portland area.
Who is Bozo Texino? 2005 Bill Daniel
This film is mainly about railworker and hobo boxcar graffiti artists. In the course of his explorations, Photo Bill plunges into the train riding world, visiting hobo/tramp gatherings and camps, talking to workers, and eventually tracking down famous boxcar taggers such as Palm Tree Herby, the Rambler and, finally, the elusive Bozo Texino. Great cinematography with lots of atmospheric shots of railroading and riding in the western US. Good narration and soundtrack too. Highly recommended. The DVD is available from several sources, including "www.billdaniel.net".
Wild Boys of the Road 1933 William Wellman
This is a black-and-white Hollywood depression-era film about a group of teenagers (despite the film title, boys "and girls") forced onto the rails in the midst of the Great Depression. It has been described as the Reefer Madness of trainriding — apparently, a goal of the film was to dissuade teenagers from leaving home to ride the rails by highlighting the potential dangers and difficulties. But in reality its dramatic traveling scenes seems to have had the opposite effect, inspiring even more kids to head out on the road.
The Wobblies 1979 Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer - The Center for Educational Production with Support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 90 Minutes.
Fascinating documentary about the early years of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical industrial union which by the late 'teens was dominated by hobo labor. The film uses lots of first hand testimony of old time "Wobblies", recounting their youthful exploits as "harvest stiffs", "timber beasts", and "apple knockers", riding freight trains from job to job, dealing with "high jacks", railroad bulls, and hostile train crews. It becomes readily apparent that the IWW had a profound effect upon a generation of hoboes nearly a century ago now, and that this legacy can still be felt today.