The Titfield Thunderbolt was the first Ealing comedy to be made in colour, but despite this technical progress, it also marked the end of the studio's classic period (maybe I should say the beginning of the end as The Ladykillers appeared in 1955). It did reasonably well on its first release but has aged less well than other Ealing comedies. This is partly a matter of changing tastes (the black comedy of The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets still has great appeal today) but also due to the fact that The Titfield Thunderbolt is almost too cosy, too idealised.
The Titfield Thunderbolt, on the other hand, is about a group of people who want to run a railway in order to avoid moving with the times. In the immediate post-war years there was a drive, reflected in cinema, that a new world would arise from the ashes of the old. In Passport to Pimlico, for example, Stanley Holloway's Pemberton wants to create a leisure park on a bomb site to give children a safe place for healthy play in post-war London. Here, Holloway's Mr Valentine bankrolls the railway, giving the old landed gentry (John Gregson's Squire) and the Church (George Relph's Vicar), the opportunity to keep things as they are.
The opening scenes, showing Titfied coming to life as the villagers make their way to the morning train, show an England which didn't really exist even when the film was made: cottages with neat gardens, no motor vehicles at all, just the sound of birdsong and the train chuffing its way through lush, open countryside (Douglas Slocombe's colour photography is beautiful throughout the film).
Progress, however, is on the way. State-owned British Railways has decided to close the Titfield line and replace it with a privately-owned bus company (apparently without prior consultation). A group led by the Squire and Vicar persuade Mr Valentine (a wealthy alcoholic who seems to have been propping up the bar of the local pub “for forty years” without suffering liver failure) to fund the local effort to keep the line open, on the basis that the company can open a bar on the train outside pub opening hours. The Ministry of Transport holds a public meeting which is briefly interrupted by a union man, Coggett, (Reginald Beckwith) whose rambling protest against “the bosses” and “exploitation” serves as a prototype for Peter Sellers' Fred Kite in the Boulting Brothers I'm All Right Jack five years later. The Ministry agrees to let the villagers run the railway for a month, when an inspection will decide if they can continue permanently.
An army of extras appears to refurbish the station, the carriages, and the tracks; the post-war ideal of community effort being brought into play, but for an anachronistic objective. The month's trial does not go entirely smoothly. There is conflict between the Vicar/driver and his poacher/fireman (Hugh Griffith), and attempts at sabotage by the bus operators (joined by Sid James's steamroller driver, Harry Hawkins, following a duel with the train locomotive). One attempt involves draining the water tower. Without water, the film says, the locomotive will explode, which is completely untrue - locomotive designers aren't that stupid – but this allows another army of extras to fortuitously appear to carry water in buckets, bedwarmers and baby baths (loaned without hesitation by a local farm) from a nearby stream to save the day. The British, however, love a plucky underdog, and soon the railway is a national tourist attraction and making a profit.
An apparently fatal disaster occurs on the night before the final inspection. The train is deliberately wrecked by Hawkins and the bus operators. Sadly reflecting on the end of an era, the Vicar has an inspiration – why not take the original locomotive Thunderbolt out of its museum, use the poacher/fireman's old railway-carriage home as a coach, and run those as the train? Another army of extras is found at 3a.m. to do the necessary work, and the train is ready for inspection by the next day.
The inspection is not, of course, incident-free. Thunderbolt breaks her coupling and another army of extras has to be found in the middle of the countryside to push until the train and locomotive can be brought together again. The Vicar decides to show what Thunderbolt can do and completes the trip at full speed. Finally, they pass the inspection, with a warning to the Vicar to watch his speed – another mile-an-hour and he would have broken the regulations. Order has been restored, Titfield preserved, and tradition maintained.
This synopsis rather deliberately plays up the anomalies of the plot. In Passport to Pimlico, the situation of a community of Londoners standing up to bureaucracy seemed almost plausible. Here, the humour is very forced and the situations artificial. It is true that private railways would spring up around the country to run preserved locomotives, but as museum pieces, not to preserve a way of life that was doomed to change anyway.
The film's strong points, if you are a railway enthusiast, are the opportunities to see steam locomotives in operation, and beautifully filmed. The highlight is, of course, Thunderbolt herself. She was the 'Lion', a locomotive of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, built in 1838. Painted in rich red and green for Technicolor purposes, she was actually steamed and ran under her own power, aged 114. The scene where she is re-joined to the uncoupled train resulted in damage to her tender which can still be seen today.
The Titfield Thunderbolt looks beautiful, and provides good fun for train buffs, but lacks the sharpness of earlier Ealing satires. This is an England filled with loveable eccentrics, who play cricket on the village green and drink mild-and-bitter in the local inn, The Grasshopper. In a few years Dr Beeching would produce his report on “The Reshaping of British Railways”, and the world represented by Titfield, with stations like Dogdyke, Tumby Woodside and Windmill End, would vanish forever.