The True History of the Orient Express

Spies used it as a secret weapon. A president tumbled from it. Hitler wanted it destroyed. Just what made this train so intriguing?

Orient Express
Georges Nagelmackers, creator of the Orient Express, envisioned "a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles," writes one historian. Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Image via 20th Century Fox

To most people the Orient Express is more an idea than a tangible entity. We are most familiar with its life in fiction and cinema: Hercule Poirot solved his most famous case on it, Alfred Hitchock's lady vanished from it and James Bond rode it from Istanbul to London.

Now, the latest iteration of the legendary train is chugging back to the big screen as director Kenneth Branagh tries his hand at remaking Agatha Christie's classic murder-mystery tale.

Murder on the Orient Express | Official Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX

But what was the real Orient Express like, how did it first attain its aura of mystery and intrigue and what was the famous train's ultimate fate?

A Continental Vision

In 1865, a prominent Belgian banker's son named Georges Nagelmackers first envisioned "a train that would span a continent, running on a continuous ribbon of metal for more than 1,500 miles," as E. H. Cookridge writes in Orient Express: The Life and Times of the World's Most Famous Train. During a trip to America, Nagelmackers witnessed the many innovations in railway travel there—chief among them George Pullman's unprecedented, luxurious "sleeper cars"—and he returned determined to realize his vision.

In 1883, after a number of false starts, financial troubles and difficulties negotiating with various national railway companies, Nagelmackers's Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (wagons-lits being French for "sleeper cars") established a route from Paris to Istanbul, then called Constantinople. The newspapers dubbed it the "Orient Express"—though Istanbul was as far toward the "Orient" as this train would ever travel—and Nagelmackers embraced the name.

On October 4, the Orient Express set out on its first formal journey, with many journalists aboard to publicly marvel at the train's luxury and beauty. (Nagelmackers, a clever showman, even arranged to have shoddy, decaying old Pullman cars stand in contrast on the tracks adjacent to the Express as it left Paris's Gare de Strasbourg.) Aboard the train, the delighted passengers felt as though they'd entered one of Europe's finest hotels; they marveled at the intricate wooden paneling, deluxe leather armchairs, silk sheets and wool blankets for the beds. The journey from Paris to Istanbul lasted a little over 80 hours.

The King of Trains

Some kings traveling onboard the train infamously exhibited very odd behavior. Ferdinand of Bulgaria, scared to death of assassins, was observed locking himself in the bathroom. Belgium's King Leopold II rode the train to Istanbul after making elaborate arrangements to infiltrate a Turkish man's harem. The king of Bulgaria, an amateur engineer, insisted that he be allowed to drive the train through his country, which he did at perilous speeds. Czar Nicholas II demanded that special cars be built for his visit to France, and some decades later the French President Paul Deschanel clumsily tumbled from one of these cars in the dead of night, an event that prompted such ridicule that he eventually resigned.

In its heyday, the train duly earned another nickname: "Spies' Express." Continent-hopping secret agents loved the train, writes Cookridge, since it simply "made their jobs so much easier and their travels much more comfortable." One of the most remarkable of these agents was an Englishman named Robert Baden-Powell, who posed as a lepidopterist collecting samples in the Balkans. His intricate sketches of the forms and colors of butterfly wings were actually coded representations of the fortifications he spotted along the Dalmatian Coast, which served as great aids to the British and Italian navies during World War I.

Though the two World Wars severely limited Orient Express service, a single car played a fascinating symbolic role in both. On November 11, 1918, German officers signed a surrender document in an Allied commander's Wagons-Lits car, which he used as a mobile conference room. The French proudly exhibited the car in Paris until June 1940, when Hitler ordered that it be hauled to the precise spot where the Germans had been forced to surrender 22 years before; there he dictated the terms of French surrender. Four years later, when Hitler's loss seemed imminent, he ordered that the car be blown up, lest it "become a trophy of the Allies once more."

A True Original

What remains of the Orient Express? The pedigree of the train became rather complicated in later years, as Nagelmackers's original line spawned similar ones following slightly different routes, and as other providers began to use the phrase "Orient Express" for promotional purposes. The Direct Orient Express, the Simplon Orient Express (the train Poirot rode), the Nostalgic Orient Express and many others have existed over the years. One descendant of the original Orient Express became rather shabby, crowded and cheap—a disillusioned journalist called it a "roving tenement." Today's Venice-Simplon Orient Express aims for the opulence of the original, and for the right price, a person can still go for a ride in its restored original Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits cars.

But attempts to maintain the old glamour of the Orient Express have largely fallen into self-parody—promoters of the line have encouraged patrons to dress in 1920s garb, and even once staged a murder mystery game during a journey. Writing in 1976 for the Los Angeles Times, one reporter meets a tired and cranky contessa who says, on the trip's last leg, "If there are going to be any murders on this train, it will be the Turk that wakes me up at 5 a.m."

Modern versions of the Orient Express are a far cry from the original that Cookridge lovingly and nostalgically portrays: "Kings and crooks, millionaires and refugees, big-game hunters and smugglers, prima donnas and courtesans traveled on it; tycoons and financiers clinched their deals across its sumptuous dining tables; diplomats, spies, and revolutionaries on board the train moved secretively to their moments of history." The era of such intrigue and excitement aboard the Orient Express is over. But in a world that becomes more connected every day—and one in which there is no shortage of luxury travel—much of Nagelmackers's vision lives on.

The Orient Express became the train of choice for Europe's wealthy and high-born, a rolling symbol of the economic disparities of its age. "Peasants in half-a-dozen countries would pause in their work in the fields and gape at the glittering cars and the supercilious faces behind the windows," writes Cookridge. It came to be called "the King of Trains and the Train of Kings."

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