Eighteen films later, we’re back playing with trains in The Titfield Thunderbolt. The very image of this film has come to stand from something essential about the Ealing comedy and Ealing Studios – a quaint cosy little village community standing up against consumerism by doing things ‘their way.’ As such, the film has been seen less as about trains and more about a view of Britain as stuck in tradition, unable to understand the possible benevolence of progress. The plot of the film is straightforward: when a local branch line is threatened with closure, a group of villagers group together to save the train line, and battle the ‘big business’ replacement (the Pearce & Crump omnibus service).
Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios (a common reference point for this blog) berates the film for allying itself with amateurs and parasites: ‘mainly from the church, the squirearchy, and the idle rich’ rather than the wider community, creating a backward looking world ‘with no dynamism.’ (163) Barr’s reaction has to be understood in the broader scheme of the book, which celebrates the ‘ironies and ambiguities of the Hamer and Mackendrick comedies’ (little of which he finds in this film, or the other TEB Clarke ‘community’ comedies), and it works to reduce the impact (and scope) of his analysis of what remains a popular and oft-cited Ealing film. Along with Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore!, this film sets out many of the characteristics that define terms like ‘Ealing-esque’: films that focus on community over faceless bureaucracy, small versus large, quality versus quantity, which many commentators have seen influencing later films such as Local Hero (1983) and The Full Monty (1997).
It is true that The Titfield Thunderbolt is a broad comedy that revolves around particular stereotypes of small village life and commercialism. It is also, however, a clever and wryly intelligent film that mocks those stereotypes rather than blindly accepting them. It is particularly disingenuous for Barr to suggest that the three central ‘amateurs’ in the film (the vicar Weech (George Relph), squire Gordon (John Gregson) and rich alcoholic Valentine (Stanley Holloway) demonstrate the lack of an actual community. Such a reading fails to address the additional characters who are involved in the railway, from driver Dan (Hugh Griffith) and local businessman Blakeworth (Naunton Wayne) to housekeeper Emily (Edie Martin) and barmaid Joan (Gabrielle Brune): characters that are not part of the religious, landowning classes that Barr identifies. The wider community of the film is largely depicted through extras (notably scenes such as the crowds coming to wave them off, or the cricket team rushing off the pitch to see the train and cheering its passage), but that is equally true of the communities in Passport to Pimlico or Whisky Galore!, where certain individuals are more prominent in the narrative. The novelty of the train is certainly focused on, but it is far from being Barr’s ‘tourist train,’ given characters like Blakeworth rely on it to get to work, and Gordon uses the train to take his produce to market (not quite the act of the idle rich squirearchy Barr tries to construct).
The bureaucrats from the Ministry of Transport, and the owners of Pearce & Crump are painted with broad strokes, but there are subtle touches: one of the ministry men drives an unfeasibly small motorbike to work; the inspector is officious but ultimately charmed by the train; Crump is willing to use muscle to make his point (and happily cheers ‘why are we waiting’ when he is stuck on the train at the end), while Pearce is more cowardly, confessing everything to the police. The men at the heart of the narrative are not one-dimensional either: Weech is a particularly passionate religious figure (even if that passion for steam trains blinds him to the realities of life), while Valentine’s comedy drunk nevertheless steps up and (with Dan) tries to steal a replacement engine to keep the train line running. (Holloway is obviously having fun with the performance, particularly his overawed/childishly happy reaction in the bar when Gordon – cunningly – reveals the train could start selling alcohol first thing in the morning)
Yet the most interesting characters in the film are arguably Blakeworth and Hawkins (Sid James), because they exist in the grey area between the passionate villagers and the businesslike Pearce & Crump. Blakeworth is in the initial meetings with Weech and Gordon about taking over the railway, but then voices his concern over safety at the public meeting; he takes the train to work most days, but also tries out the omnibus; he frets about not being involved (after overhearing a conversation between Pearce and Crump about sabotaging the train) and then is arrested when he attempts to stop them. If Weech, Gordon and Valentine are the heart, Blakeworth is the head, constantly aware of issues around money, safety and timeliness (with the latter two, it turns out, exactly what the Ministry is assessing the line on).
Hawkins is different again (and interesting because of that difference): a local worker who doesn’t seem to care about either mode of transport (arguably because he is normally seen on the back of a steam roller). We first see him holding up Gordon’s motor car through narrow country lanes (possibly another example of steam power delaying more modern progress), then he is roped in by Pearce & Crone in a stand-off between steam train and roller (which the roller loses), before he joins in on full-blown sabotage and destruction. (James’s performance of Hawkins’ look of loss when he thinks the roller is broken, and his angry desire for retribution, is particularly strong and not as broadly comic as his later Carry On fame would suggest) Yet Hawkins is also a character who helps save the day, by allowing the train crew to cannibalise the roller for spares on the final run, with the ministry inspecting them (Hawkins has ulterior motives, notably Joan’s announcement she’ll do anything if he helps, include getting married).
Hawkins is also in two of the film’s more interesting narrative and stylistic moments. In the local pub, after the face-off with the train, he is watching a black-and-white western on the television (and dropping glasses off the bar): the western shows a chase scene with Indians chasing a train, then cuts to a saloon where three outlaw cowboys discuss the failure. At the same moment, Pearce & Crump walk in, and gesture for Hawkins to join them: the camera pushes in on the TV screen, then cuts to Hawkins et al., in similar positions (as the outlaws) in the pub. Even the saloon girl in the western becomes a prim lady with a charity collection tin. Then, just as the three begin to make plans, we cut back to the TV, which flickers, then goes off, before a ‘Normal Service will be resumed’ sign flashes up (Ealing wasn’t above a little inter-screen rivalry – as Meet Mr Lucifer (1954) would prove).
Hawkins is next seen lying in the grass, firing a rifle. The link between the western and the narrative becomes clearer, particularly when the film cuts to Weech and Dan on the train, seemingly under fire. Dan picks up a gun, and starts shooting, and the film intercuts between the two scenes. But then we realise Hawkins is shooting at the water tower, and Dan is taking the opportunity to bag himself a pheasant: it is a nice piece of (genre-led) comic misdirection that shows particular skill on the part of Crichton and editor Seth Holt.
As ever with these films, there are more elements than I have time to really list here: the curious, often mocking, attitude the Ealing films take towards trade unions (the trade union representative here, Cloggett (Reginald Beckwith) is confused when he realises the proposed train crew would be management and labour at the same time); the float that Pearce & Crump produce that depicts a hospital operating theatre with ‘A victim of amateurism’ painted on it (which suggests a comment on the NHS?); the accuracy of the future imagined in Gordon’s impassioned plea of more concrete roads, traffic light, zebra crossings and houses with numbers and not names...
And, just to engage with Barr on this one more time, I’m not convinced the film is ‘slow, uncomplicated, and picturesque’ (Barr 1980, 162): the race between the bus and the train to the inquiry is fast-paced; the rush to collect water to prevent the train exploding is madcap and chaotic; while Valentine and Dan’s stolen train chase (crashing through a Guinness sign) is briskly edited (even if it does feel a little tangential to the main plot). The use of colour is also strong, and has firm narrative purpose, distinguishing between the bland cream bus and the gleaming red, green and gold of the Titfield Thunderbolt.
Next time: we go on the run with Alec Guinness in Ealing's science fiction-comedy The Man in the White Suit (1951)