DVD Review - 'The Flying Scotsman'

Posted on: 24 February 2011 by Alexander Hay

This flawed film marks a turning point in British cinema.

Safety first? Pauline Johnson was having none of that nonsense...

Some things never change. As cinemas try to lure in people today with 3D, so by the end of the 1920s, sound was all the rage. Starting in 1927, with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, it was pretty much game over for silent films.

Jumping on this bandwagon was one of the first British film with sound, 1929's The Flying Scotsman, re-released next week in in all its digitally restored glory. Famed for its dangerous stuntwork (they couldn't even spell 'Health 'n Safety' in those days), the film is an hour-long piece where a soon-to-be retired train driver earns the enmity of his ex-stoker who tries to sabotage his last journey.

Meanwhile the driver's daughter finds herself in a somewhat unintended love affair with the new rather laddish stoker, who then gets hit over the head with a shovel by her father. That's a lot in 60 minutes.

But while The Flying Scotsman is historically important, it's also not a particularly distinguished film in its own right. The plot is flimsy, contrived and wafer-thin, the juxtaposition of silent and sounded sequences both inconsistent and clumsy, while the actors - when they do talk - are still learning how to enunciate properly for the cinema.

Bear in mind that it was realised in the same year as Hitchcock's first talkie, Blackmail, and it's easy to see why the film isn't exactly beloved. The stunt sequences are also too short, like the makers just thought they had enough and to hell with the audience. (All the British Film Industry's vices are all present and correct.)

And yet, the centrepieces of the film - the stunt sequences themselves and the cinematography of the train - are still impressive, even today. The physical humour, like a dust-up in a dance hall, is well-timed, and the fight sequences themselves well choreographed.

The performances also stand out. As said, there is a gulf between the silent and 'talkie' scenes. The actors force themselves to talk during the latter, but it's plain that they were still more comfortable in the former.

Moore Marriot as the driver and Alec Hurley as his nemesis provide a glorious last hurrah for the silent era, with expressive and charismatic performances, often simply by a look, or how a hat is held in the hand.

Pauline Johnson is similarly impressive, able to say a great deal simply with an expression. Only Gordon Harker, as the new boy, has some weaknesses - he simply doesn't convince a lot of the time, but shows flickers of the talent he would go on to develop in what would end up being a career that stretched into the 1980s.

Ultimately though, the final look of joy and sadness on Marriot's face as his character bids his train one last farewell hints at what could have been a much deeper and better made film. But it was, as they say, early days and it shows.

THE FLYING SCOTSMAN DVD is out on 28th February. You can get a copy from all good retailers, including Amazon and Play.com. RRP £19.99.

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Alexander Hay

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