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All Steamed Up.,
By A Customer
This review is from: The Titfield Thunderbolt [VHS]  (VHS Tape)
'We were only out to provide entertainment that would fill cinemas on a rainy afternoon in post-war Britain'. That's how T.E.B. Clarke writer of "The Titfield Thunderbolt" dismisses any suggestion that the film is a classic.
The story concerns a British rural railway line, serving a small village called Titfield. British Railways want to close the line down, because it runs at a loss. However, the local vicar (Relph), town clerk (Wayne) and landowner (Gregson) want to save it. The baddies, Pearce and Crump (MacGowran and Roberts), own the local coach and bus company and are therefore delighted to hear that the railway is to close: They even buy a brand new bus on the strength of the news!
With help from local money-bags, Mr Valentine (Holloway), the supporters of the railway manage to BUY the branch line!
The remainder of the film depicts the battle (by fair means and foul - mainly the latter) between the two competing modes of transport. This culminates in a spectacular train crash sequence (perhaps the best model sequence in any UK fifties movie) and then the retrieval, from a museum, of an ancient locomotive called "The Titfield Thunderbolt"
The film's writer, T.E.B. Clarke, may dismiss any suggestion of it being a classic, yet that's how it seems to many people like myself who weren't even born when it was made. To get under the skin of this apparent contradiction we have to look at the factors that came together to make the film special - and the subsequent events that gave it a continuing life.
Like many classic films, Titfield was a fusion of skill, personalities and luck. The film's luck starts with having the impeccable Charles Crichton as director, and continues with the use of vivid Technicolor (I think it would be all but forgotten today, if it had been B&W). There's skill in the choices of location (Monkton Coombe, Freshford and Limpley Stoke near Bath, Somerset, UK) and in the excellent casting. There's wonderful cinematography by Douglas Slocombe and the whole serendipitous mix is capped off by the exteriors being shot during, what seems to have been, several weeks of brilliant sunny weather, heightening the beauty of the landscape and giving it a golden timeless quality.
The film's longevity came about because, after it was made, released and semi-forgotten, news events suddenly gave it a new currency. In the early 1960s a wholesale closure programme of loss-making British rural railway lines generated many 'Titfield' type situations throughout the UK. Perhaps rural communities battling to save their branch lines drew strength from the storyline of the film in which the villagers triumph against the dead hand of bureaucracy. The film acquired a new lease of life, and it has played on TV ever since and gathered new adherents in subsequent generations.
Crichton's direction is as sure-footed as Clarke's writing and the actors enjoy themselves enormously: especially Hugh Griffiths as Dan, the retired railwayman whom the villagers enlist to help them run the railway. With visually lovely locations, seemingly continual sunshine, longshots of cricket matches on the green and of course the old steam engines puffing through it all, the film is a delight to the eye as well as being an excellent entertainment.
The film conjours up a lost Britain in which - as Michael Palin once put it - 'the sun was always shining, and the trains were always friendly'.
1) Titfield Thunderbolt out-takes are available in the UK on a VideoRail compilation. Bizarrely, the BBC's classic Dad's Army series contains a short shot of the 1401 Titfield train in an episode called "The Royal Train" in which there are several somewhat jumbled old train clips used to bolster the story line.
2) John Gregson's next project, Genevieve - another classic British film - was severely hampered by very bad weather. So 1952 wasn't ALL sunshine!
3) Simon Castens has produced a lovely little book (available through Amazon and elsewhere - just Google the title) called "On the Trail of the Titfield Thunderbolt" (ISBN 0953877108) which gives information about the specific shooting locations used in the film. If you're a fan of the movie and having a holiday in the Bath UK area, it makes a very pleasant day out to tour around these locations - almost all are within a 10 mile radius of Bath and in lovely countryside and villages. Freshford and Monkton are a particular joy. I have no connection with this book, other than as a satisfied reader of it.