Home Video Hovel: The Titfield Thunderbolt, by Dayne Linford
With a name like The Titfield Thunderbolt, the director of A Fish Called Wanda (1988), and the same studio that made gems like The Ladykillers (1955) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), there’s the understandable feeling that this film really can’t miss. And it didn’t. But that’s not because it’s a rousing success. It’s rather more like starting a game of darts to find that someone has glued a dart in the middle of the board and has just left it hanging there. I mean, it’s a technical hit but it’s no accomplishment.
A quiet, passably entertaining little movie, there just isn’t anything particularly remarkable about The Titfield Thunderbolt. Like the train referenced in the title, it just goes along about its business, which is primarily to provide a venue for small-town chuckles and warm feelings. In all those ways, it’s an all right film. It’s just too bad that, sharing company with so many remarkable comedies, this one should be so humdrum.
Ealing Studios, the company behind a kind of mini-renaissance of British comedies in the late 40s and 50s, is a well-known British cinematic institution, still chugging along today, in fact. Best known for that mini-renaissance, many of England’s brightest talents in the period graduated through the studio and on to other things, including, most notably and most notably missing from the film reviewed here, Alec Guinness. Of these, Charles Crichton, who would direct Wanda after a long hiatus from making movies, was also a standby figure, having made The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) prior to Titfield and edited many films before that, including The Thief of Baghdad (1940). So, his bona fides in the British film industry are well-established and, for one, I think Wanda is a brilliant comedy. Unfortunately, Titfield is very little of anything at all.
It belongs to the notable international genre of nostalgia films, which are all about how the best stuff was the stuff from the time just before now and the worst stuff is the stuff from the now time. In this case, buses are truly terrible but old trains are pretty rad. The titular Titfield Thunderbolt is one such old train, the last such old train running, in fact, and it looks like the bureaucracy might be trying to shut it down because no one seems to be using it. Well, that’s just the sort of thing to get a couple good old boys going on saving the thing and uniting the townsfolk behind them. One of them is a devoted–you could say conceptually so–train enthusiast and the other appears to be good at making speeches, if not much else. They find the local rich drunk, apparently a commonality in rural England, and get him to back them financially. Now all they’ve got to do is pass the inspection and we’re back in business. Except another couple of local boys have gone and invested everything into bus transportation and they’re not remotely interested in fair competition! Shenanigans ensue.
Titfield was the first film Ealing did in Technicolor and it really shows. Everything pops vibrantly in bright, bold colors. One could say almost absurdly bright. The entire film is lit like a football stadium (I’ll let you decide which variety) with nary an offending shadow in sight. Technicolor was infamous for demanding certain lighting and shooting conditions before allowing their magic to be used and Titfield is a very good example of why directors with a strong visual sense, such as Michael Powell, gave them the runaround and then the finger, in that order. Everything is very bright but this strict tonal consistency actually makes the image quite boring and it’s hard to maintain interest. Not to mention, it deprives the cinematographer of some of the key tools of their trade, such as using light to direct attention or convey mood. This alone forces the film into a conservative crouch, entirely separate from its politics. Unlike other Ealing classics, particularly Kind Hearts and Coronets, which were quite inventive visually, using their cinematic tools to elicit humor and accentuate punchlines, cinematically Titfield just sits there, shot in the most basic manner possible with the colors as bright as possible.
All in all, this central conservatism in filmmaking technique is so all-consuming as to leave behind a fair appraisal of other aspects of the film. It seems like the performances are all right, if one can catch nuance through such glare. The writing is a little pat, perhaps, but it’s hard to tell since there’s no animating artistry to this film. This left my viewing experience as a rather long, unmotivated sit-through of a fairly short film and it meant that character decisions and plot developments also felt similarly unmotivated. The bad guys are pretty rote and go to extremes right from the bat, and the town is suddenly interested in and wildly supportive of rail travel just because it’s what we’re doing, dammit–down to several different moments when all looks to be lost except for a swarm of townspeople who just materialize with the needed gadget or whatnot to save the day.
Essentially, the film is rather slight and not particularly funny, which is too bad. It’s a bit of nostalgia interesting only to those who share that nostalgia and perhaps of some interest to a film scholar or Ealing die hard. Unfortunately, amongst all its contemporaries, this has to be considered a lesser entry. Even if you’re interested in the period, the studio, and the filmmaker, as I am all three, I’d recommend this one only for completists.