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The residents of a small English village are about to lose their ancient railroad. They decide to rescue it by running it themselves, in competition with the local bus company. Written by
Blair Stannard <email@example.com>
The role of the pre-accident locomotive #1401 was played by two separate 14XX locomotives, facing in opposite directions to allow as much filming as possible. #1401 starred as herself while #1450 masqueraded as her sister with identical number-plates. Though #1401 was later scrapped, #1450 was preserved and today operates on steam railways throughout Britain. See more »
When Dan and Mr Valentine steal the locomotive standing on the turntable to run it away down the streets, the tracks covered over with grass are visible. See more »
One of the most amusing of the Ealing comedies- and possibly one of the most prophetic
This was one of only two Ealing comedies to be made in colour, the other being "The Ladykillers" from two years later. Although railways play an important part in both, the two films are very different. "The Ladykillers" is an urban black comedy which was made in dull, muted colours but could equally well have been made in black and white. "The Titfield Thunderbolt", by contrast, is the sort of film that needs to be in colour. It is a joyful comedy, celebrating English rural life, and was shot against the background of beautiful, verdant West Country landscapes in late summer. (The wild flowers in the hedgerows suggest a date rather later than the June/early July when the story is ostensibly set). Appropriately for a film which opened in Coronation year, it has a notably patriotic tone.
The theory has been put forward that the Ealing comedies were intended as satires on "Attlee's Britain", the Britain which had come into being after the Labour victory in the 1945 general election. Although Churchill's Conservatives had returned to power by the time "The Titfield Thunderbolt" was made in 1953, I think that the theory still applies to it because the new government accepted many of the reforms made by its predecessor and did not attempt to reverse them. One of the things that Attlee's government had done was to nationalise the railways, and the plot of the film revolves around an attempt by the new, nationalised British Railways to close a branch line between the (fictional) towns of Titfield and Mallingford.
A group of local people campaign to prevent the railway from being closed, and, when it becomes clear that BR will not listen to local opinion, decide to take over the line and operate it themselves. The leading lights in this campaign are the local Squire, whose great-grandfather originally built the line, and the eccentric local Vicar, who also acts as engine-driver. (A rascally local poacher is his fireman). The money for the enterprise is provided by a wealthy and hard-drinking landowner, Mr Valentine, whose main motivation is the idea that he can get a drink whenever he wants one. (In the 1950s the law imposed stringent closing-times on licensed premises, but licensing hours did not apply to bars on trains). The best performances come from Stanley Holloway (who also had important roles in "Passport to Pimlico" and "The Lavender Hill Mob") as Valentine, George Relph as the Vicar and Hugh Griffith as Dan the poacher. Those familiar with the "Carry On" films will recognise Sid James as a steamroller driver.
Like two other Ealing comedies, "Whisky Galore" and "Passport to Pimlico", this one deals with the theme of a small, close-knit community taking on the forces of bureaucracy. The film's satire, however, is not directed just at the bureaucrats of British Rail and the Ministry of Transport. As in "The Man in the White Suit" there are also satirical digs at the trade unions, portrayed as being more concerned with their own narrow interest than with the wider public good, and at business. The local bus company welcome the closure of the railway, which they see as an opportunity to increase their own profits. Much of the humour in the film derives from the bus company's increasingly frantic efforts to sabotage the railway, and the attempts of the railway enthusiasts to fight back. After their only steam engine is put out of action, they decide that the only way of keeping the railway in operation is to steal a veteran locomotive (the "Thunderbolt" of the title) from the local museum.
"The Titfield Thunderbolt" was, at one time, often regarded as one of the weaker Ealing comedies. It briefly became topical about a decade later when British Rail, under the chairmanship of Dr Richard Beeching, and with the encouragement of the notoriously pro-road and anti-rail Minister of Transport Ernest Marples, closed many branch lines across the country, but following the "Beeching Axe" and the growth of the "car economy" in the sixties and seventies, it began to look outdated. Enthusiasm for steam trains was seen as mere sentimental nostalgia. Today, however, the film looks very different in the light of modern concerns about global warming, congestion and the loss of countryside to the motorway network. There is a growing desire for local, community-based solutions to local problems. A film which once seemed like a reactionary fantasy of a Merrie England which never existed now seems far-seeing. Contrary to what Beeching and Marples might have thought, public transport, including the railways, still has an important part to play in the twenty-first century. "The Titfield Thunderbolt" is not just one of the most amusing of the Ealing series. It might also turn out to be one of the most prophetic. 9/10
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