Dr. Charles King: Past and Present of the Orient Express | Wilson Center

Dr. Charles King: Past and Present of the Orient Express

Former Wilson Center Fellow Charles King is featured as an expert in the 2019 film “In Search of the Orient Express” by French director Louis Pascal CouvelaireIn a trailer for the film, while traveling on the restored, fast-moving train with the original 19th Century dinnerware, King comments on the history of Europe, Turkey, and the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, during the heyday of the train.

Charles King is Professor of International Affairs and Government and chair of the Department of Government at Georgetown University. His research focuses on nationalism, ethnic politics, transitions from authoritarianism, urban history, and the relationship between history and the social sciences.


Q: What is the film “In Search of the Orient Express” about?

A: The film is a documentary about the history and rejuvenation of the Orient Express, one of the most fabled trains in history. When the old Orient Express line went out of service, the train carriages were threatened with destruction. But an American investor bought up significant numbers of the old cars, restored them, and then placed the train back in service. The film examines the history of the train as a vehicle for understanding bigger changes: relations between Europe and the Muslim world, freedom of movement across the European continent--an issue much in the news now because of Brexit--and the relationship between private investors and large public infrastructure projects. Plus, there is plenty of mystery and human interest as well, given that the train was the (fictional) setting for one of the world's most-read novels, Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express."

Q: What is your role in the film?

A: I was really no more than a talking head--an expert brought in to comment on the history of Europe, Turkey, and the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, the heyday of the train. But it was a thrill to be able to sit in the interior of a reconditioned rail car, a beautiful space outfitted with wood and polished brass, and a table set with the original Orient Express dinnerware. The director, Louis Pascal Couvelaire, is a very talented French filmmaker who has a real feel for evoking other time periods and places.

Q: What is unique about this film and what feelings or key takeaways do you want the film’s audience to understand? 

A: I think people will come away entertained but also enlightened--about the history of Turkey and its relationship to the rest of Europe, about a train whose name still evokes a sense of wonder and romance, and about the remarkable creativity and energy that investors have brought to reviving this important piece of world heritage.