The Flying Scotsman | Review by Jordan Mooney
Early British cinema has a complicated heritage of an industry with less money but just as much talent as that present across the pond. Films were somewhat rarer and those with real significance often rarer still, and while the odd gem may have arrived they were often very swiftly forgotten – I cannot think of many unusual or daring films to come from 1920s Britain but there is one I have seen only very recently with 1929’s ‘The Flying Scotsman.’
This bewildering little picture is half silent, half talkie, and all railway – very much like Hitchcock’s Blackmail, it was started with silent technology in mind but by the halfway point we have heard characters talk. Some still claim it predates Blackmail as a British talkie but to be perfectly frank I personally doubt it and it is still very unclear as to whether it was released with such a soundtrack, the date given by some movie websites as 1930 for dialogue.
The sound aspects of the movie are actually somewhat jarring – with time there has developed a very obvious hiss to the audio and when they are based on a steam locomotive it certainly doesn’t help – it isn’t massively annoying nor does it ruin the movie by any stretch of the imagination – with it being the early years of talkie pictures I suppose it is quite an unfair comment to make. Any restored versions of the film can’t improve it any further than they have, but beautiful prints of the film with excellent detail are now available.
Throughout the film we get many adoring views of the LNER’s famous Flying Scotsman
The premise of the film is very Hollywood in nature and often feels like a form of bizarre British Western. An old engine driver, Bob, is due to retire, and on the day before his final run he reports his fireman, Crow for drinking on duty – Crow swears revenge. Meanwhile, Bob’s daughter, Joan is courted by Crow’s replacement fireman, something that will not bode well for her unknowing but protective father.
This film is not famous for its acting or premise, it is the cinematography that is well captured as significant. Throughout the film we get many adoring views of the LNER’s famous Flying Scotsman, which would go on to become ‘The People’s Engine’, and one of the most famous locomotives in the world. This engine practically becomes a star of the movie herself and with some incredible stunts taking place in the movie she really is the focal point.
The stunts consist of climbing along the side of a moving train, uncoupling the rake behind the locomotive whilst still in motion and clambering on a locomotive’s tender, most of which, for poor Miss Johnson, is in high heels!
These stunts for the time were certainly nail biting back then and still make for interesting viewing now, in fact, the sheer gall of this picture in using such scenes is quite intriguing – Sir Nigel Gresley, the media-savvy head of the LNER, was so worried for his train’s reputation he insisted a disclaimer was given in the credits that such practise would never take place!
The camera work, it must be said, is very dramatic and quite excellent for the period although I certainly can’t say it is anything from the norm for modern audiences. The same goes for most of what takes place in the movie all told.
The plot itself is, as I stated, somewhat like a bizarre British Western movie – it sounds and often acts very Hollywood but I don’t think it pulls it off too well – like most of these films it has aged quite badly and while it is still an enjoyable watch certain scenes do invoke a bit of a chuckle or two against the movie’s aims and it can get quite difficult to take things seriously. Fight scenes take place but they’re rather dire in particular and it’s best to just gloss over and wait for the result.
Perhaps most impressive is the lady of the picture isn’t a typical Hollywood damsel, but rather daring and certainly one to get something done..! She becomes the hero of the picture, a rare move for the 1920s, and still somewhat unusual now. She is far from anything out of the ordinary as a character but it makes for an odd experience to see a black and white picture with a woman in a heroic role. A little tip of the hat for that.
The climax is somewhat predictable and the dialogue is ropey, but it does manage to do the job and while I think that it could have been a better film even by 1920s standards I doubt they had much budget after those train scenes!
The picture is ultimately a very interesting if often over the top and the sometimes rather ropey script does at the very least give a satisfying ending that ties things up in a conclusive manner that reminds me of a Bananaman cartoon. ‘Take them away, boys’, etc. Just when you think the finishing kiss has been done and the credits are to roll we almost forget this is a train picture – and thus, we have to see the train arrive at its destination on time, in one piece and with a final (and surprisingly emotional) parting goodbye between man and locomotive.
This movie is bizarre – it is quintessentially British while maintaining an attempt to stay Hollywood. It is a fun watch but it is difficult to take seriously and compared to some pictures from the period has certainly aged very poorly, but I do still recommend it even if only to see the film that brought you every ‘moving train’ scene in history. A fun film with some exciting scenes but nothing to write home about. It is primitive, and even at such a low running time it feels somewhat stretched, but it can be enjoyed and if you look at it in the right mindset, you won’t regret it.
Length: 57 Minutes
Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Written by: Victor Kendall, Garnett Weston, Freeman Crofts (advisor)
Directed by: Castleton Knight
Moore Marriot – Old Bob White
Pauline Johnson – Joan White, his daughter
Ray Milland (credited as Raymond Milland) – Jim Edwards
Alec Hurley – Crow