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Titfield Thunderbolt, The (1953)


Main image of Titfield Thunderbolt, The (1953)
35mm, 87 min, colour
DirectorCharles Crichton
ProducerMichael Truman
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ScreenplayT.E.B. Clarke
CinematographyDouglas Slocombe

Cast: Stanley Holloway (Mr Valentine); George Relph (Vicar Samuel Weech); Naunton Wayne (Mr Blakeworth); John Gregson (Gordon Chesterworth); Godfrey Tearle (Bishop Olly Matthews)

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When a small rail branch line is threatened with closure, a group of villagers band together to run it themselves, in the face of opposition from a bus company.

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The first colour Ealing comedy, The Titfield Thunderbolt (d. Charles Crichton, 1953) marked the beginning of the end of the classic cycle, although there was one more glorious success - The Ladykillers (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1955) - still to come. It was also the last of the three film partnership between director Crichton and writer T.E.B. Clarke.

The film was a moderate success on its release, but it has not aged well. Alexander Mackendrick put his finger on the problem when he told Clarke:

Just about everybody would secretly like to rid themselves of tiresome relatives as in Kind Hearts and Coronets, or get hold of unlimited free whisky [Whisky Galore!], or remove a fortune in gold bars from the Bank of England [The Lavender Hill Mob]. But not so many people have any great desire to run a railway.

Titfield is the mildest of the major comedies, lacking even a hint of the mischief in the previous Crichton/Clarke collaboration The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) or Clarke's earlier Passport to Pimlico (d. Henry Cornelius, 1949). It is Ealing at its most parochial, celebrating an England which has lost the will to rebuild and renew itself which carried the country through the immediate postwar years.

The rural England of the film is one in which the old 'natural order' is restored, with leadership of the countryside back in the hands of the country squire and the vicar, to the satisfaction of all. Its enemies are commercial interests, as represented by the bus company Pearce and Crump Ltd, and, implicitly, the newly nationalised British Rail, which wants to close down Titfield's tiny branch line.

In place of these twin threats, the film prefers the villagers' genial but aimless eccentricity and spirit of plucky amateurishness. The film's triumphant climax comes when the villagers are allowed to run the railway themselves - precisely because their antique steam engine is so slow that it doesn't contravene safety regulations.

With its images of steam trains, country squires, warm beer and village-green cricket, the film seems now like a Party Political Broadcast for the Conservative Party under John Major. Perhaps the then Prime Minister even had the film in mind when, in the mid-1990s, his government rushed through the deeply unpopular re-privatisation of British Rail, the disastrous results of which mean that Britain's trains, like Titfield's, run slowly.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. A railway of our own (3:17)
2. Public meeting (2:21)
3. Midnight mission (3:13)
4. The test (1:59)
Original poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Auric, Georges (1899-1983)
Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)
Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)
Griffith, Hugh (1912-1980)
James, Sidney (1913-1976)
Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)
Ealing Comedy
The Romance of Steam