Friday, June 3, 2011

FI: The Titfield Thunderbolt

The Titfield Thunderbolt
UK, 1953
Directed by Charles Crichton

Ealing Studios, the great British film company, produced a string of classic comedies in the '40s and '50s. Some, like The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets, had a distinctly dark tone. Others, such as Passport to Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt, were far lighter and played with certain images of the "can-do" British character. They were pleasant films, heartwarming without being mawkish, and featured communities of people—often cutting across the rigid class system—coming together and achieving things as a group. This strain of class-conscious, "people coming together" movies outlived the studio's peak, its influence found in cheerful, irony-free films like Local Hero and The Full Monty. Nobody makes pictures like these quite like the British.

In The Titfield Thunderbolt, the citizens of the titular rural village all come together to take over the local railway line after the government shuts it down. With the help of the train-obsessed vicar (George Relph), and the financial backing of the sozzled, wealthy Walter Valentine (Stanley Holloway), the community manages to get the trains running again even in the face of constant threats from the local bus company, who want to attain a monopoly on travel into and out of the village. The film is full of warm nostalgia for the old days and the village life, and is shot in beautiful Technicolor—a rarity in British comedy of that period.

Thunderbolt highlights the sort of independent, "mustn't grumble" spirit often idealized as endemic to the stereotypical Brit. It depicts a world where fairness, self-determination, and the good of the community are strong enough motivation to make people work hard without complaint or expectation of personal reward. Crichton has a light touch, and allows the humor and warmth to grow almost organically throughout the film. It may not be as "good" or as famous as some of its Ealing brethren, but The Titfield Thunderbolt is a pleasure to watch and an important link in the chain uniting old British humor with its modern counterparts.

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