The Flying Scotsman, an early British movie and one of the first to employ synchronised sound, finally arrives for viewing on DVD after over 80 years – but has it been worth the wait?
The answer is a definite "yes", especially for those who are interested in the development of English language cinema, from a time where it was facing an interesting time of change, with alterations in international (particularly US) distribution and the decline of silent cinema. Despite its relatively short running time for a feature film it nevertheless feels like a precursor for many of the socially specific Ealing films that would follow some years later. The film will also be of interest to those interested in British railways – see also Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935) or WH Auden’s poetry in Night Mail (1936) – as it was filmed on the actual train and is mightily impressive even to non-railway aficionados. The opening of the film emphasises its authenticity although the filmmakers are keen to point out that dramatic licence has been taken with some of the safety elements.
The fast moving locomotive the Flying Scotsman provides the prime location for the main part of the story after a half hour exposition introducing the main players and their relationships with each other. Crewman Crow is on board despite being sacked as stoker for drinking on the job. He was reported by long-timer Bob (Moore Merriott), who is about to undertake his last journey as train driver (he’s never had an accident in 30 years but then, in all his working life he never got further than Scotland!) before a well paid retirement. His daughter Joan has also hopped onto the train at the last minute having spotted Crow threatening her dad, and the new replacement stoker is the dubious but amiable Jim, who has a reputation for collecting girlfriends. But last night he met and fell for Joan and believes that she truly is the girl for him. Unfortunately he doesn’t realise that her father is his co-worker…
The Flying Scotsman is an enjoyable comic action romance with some impressive scenes on the titular train featuring remarkable camera positioning and some notable – for which read ‘highly dangerous’ – stunt work. As the Scotsman speeds through the countryside, the protagonists cling to its side and an inexplicably placed camera, located outside the actual train, records their progress as they try to reach the engine. Much of the film centres on relationships and attitudes to social mores prevalent at the time and the combination of work ethics with the open and revealing social nature of the late 1920’s makes for interesting viewing. Here the attitudes of the workforce and the consumers, of bosses and society, provide the backdrop for the romantic relationship between Joan and Jim. Jim is played by Ray Milland in a very early screen role (credited as Raymond Milland) prior to much more famous work for, among others, Alfred Hitchcock (Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954)) and Roger Corman (Premature Burial (1962)). Here he’s the romantic lead, an amiable bloke who is a bit of a jack the lad. Much of the humour in the film comes from his attempts at wooing Joan. When he takes her to a posh restaurant he tries to obscure his lack of knowledge regarding the French menu and orders a couple of ham sandwiches and some beers. The cost is tip-negotiatingly high, not the cheap looking place he defiantly declares it to be!
The Flying Scotsman also stands as an interesting piece British film history. It was one of the earliest feature length British films to use sychronised sound, although the actual originator is still open to some debate – many sources credit Hitchcock’s Blackmail(1929) as the first. The Flying Scotsman was also created in 1929 although the sound edition was not released until the credited year of 1930. Indeed earlier parts of the movie still have dialogue cards and the actual speaking voices, rather than just the enjoyable soundtrack, do not appear until some way into the running time. This not really a problem as the film uses a number of interesting cinematic techniques (shots exposed together, varied exposure) that were less common in earlier sound productions. This is especially welcome and noticeable in the railway sequences shot outside the train which are still impressive in terms of cinematography and, at times, amazingly fast.
An engaging and enjoyable film, The Flying Scotsman is interesting viewing not just as a piece of British film history, but a ripping tale with a smattering of comedy and social commentary along with plenty of thrills.