I was pleasantly surprised to find Geoffrey Jones's "Rail" even more satisfying than his earlier and better-known "Snow" of 1965. Both films are beautiful achievements.
"Rail" captures British Railways at a major turning-point in its history. In certain respects, this was a period of considerable upheaval and loss. The Beeching Report was being enacted : the chief result being the extensive closure of most rural and some suburban branchline services. There was a facing-up to the increasing need for a big modernisation drive. Full and speedy electrification, or the wider promotion of diesel-power on remaining lines, became a matter of top priority. Geoffrey Jones recorded a rapidly disappearing world of everyday steam travel, with its labour-intensive rail workforce : some of the footage in "Rail" (recognisable from "Snow") dates from around 1962. Mr. Jones was just in time.
"Rail" pays homage to our great pioneering Victorian heritage and the setting of the foundations of our current rail network. The film begins with panoramic views of a couple of our many mainline station "cathedrals", with particular focus on their spectacular roofs. One doesn't need to be a train spotter, a rail buff, or an "anorak" to appreciate this film and all that it portrays.
The music in "Rail" (as in "Snow") is related to the guitar, percussion and drum-based rhythms and melodies of Sandy Nelson, which perfectly catch the sound, sights and general "feel" of train journeys. In "Rail", however, the music manages to be no less than symphonic in content. It's certainly of greater depth and intricacy. As with "Snow", in "Rail" the aural and visual elements to the film couldn't be more closely interrelated : both act as one inseparable and glorious whole.
The first section of "Rail" occupies some two-thirds or so of the entire work. We're given an authentic and affectionate (but not sentimental) journey : down what today is without doubt "memory lane". As one progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent - surely, even to the most fervent of preservationists - that technological change is necessary, and that it can't be far away in coming. A memorable and melancholic stage in the film is reached when the most desolate of fog (or smog)-filled docksides - with shear legs - are passed by (the remnants of a long-vanished age), to the bleak sound of muffled horns. A little later, an elderly workhorse of a steam locomotive, puffing as if a living, pulsating being and laden with carriages, is set in reverse amidst bursts of twilight : travelling backwards as if in retirement or retreat ... for perhaps the very last time.
My respect and liking for the age of steam in Britain is strong. Nevertheless, the second part of "Rail" burst in as a refreshing and pleasing contrast to the "weight" of what preceded it. Here is modernity, and the appearance (at least) of beautiful simplicity, efficiency, and "lightness", with hurtling speed. There is positivity in the air, a feeling of excitement in being able to look ahead with confidence. The main theme to the soundtrack is triumphantly repeated in the snappy closing titles.
These may seem many words for a film of about fourteen minutes ! Much more could be said about it : this is a film worthy of a full review (or at least, an attempt at that) on I.M.Db. "Rail" is a very special piece of cinema. The whole team - not only Geoffrey Jones - deserve widespread praise and recognition for their work.
The British Film Institute has done great service in making "Rail" and a number of Geoffrey Jones's other short films available for all to view on d.v.d., at reasonable cost. "Geoffrey Jones : The Rhythm of Film" includes alongside "Rail" and "Snow" : "This Is Shell" (1970, with a thumpingly catchy opening !) ; "Locomotion" (1975, another British Transport Films Production, supplemented with a wealth of archive material) ; and the "Seasons Project" (1980. This short film contains the early and skilled use of time-lapse photography in scenes of nature. I was significantly moved by its sensitivity.) The d.v.d. compilation features a recent interview with (very sadly) the late Geoffrey Jones, who is reassuringly modest and frank in describing his very interesting film directing career.
S. O. F.
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