Of the great British comedies that came out in the late Forties and early Fifties, one of my favorites is The Titfield Thunderbolt. There's no hero, no heroine, no romantic shenanigans and not even dominant players. After two generations of dumbing-down humor where the height of hilarity now usually centers on bedtime performance anxiety and flatulence, The Titfield Thunderbolt seems ever more clever, funny, and above all else, charming. Passion there is aplenty...all directed at old steam engines.
When British Rail announces that it's shutting down the Titfield-Mallington branch rail line, the Titfield villagers aren't having it. They organize, (politely, of course) to make the case that they can run the line even if British Rail won't. They get their chance, but have only a month to prove they can turn a profit and be on time. Waiting in the wings are two scheming bus line operators who are planning to make sure the villagers fail. The problems are daunting. They have the engine and the passenger cars, but they must raise ten thousand quid. Vicar Sam Weech, who loves God, his parishioners and steam engines, not necessarily in that order, suggests a raffle, a bake sale and a charity performance of The Mikado.
By now we've met many of the villagers, and we love them all. There's the Vicar (George Relph), aging and determined; the young squire, Gordon Chesterford (John Gregson); the wealthy and happy quaffer of spirits, wine and ale, Walter Valentine (Stanley Holloway); the drunk old former railroad man, Dan Taylor (Hugh Griffith), who lives in a crumbling, ancient passenger car; Harry Hawkins (Sid James), who operates a road roller and likes few people; and on we go.
It looks like the villagers might prevail...but the bus company strikes back. The duel on the tracks between the steamroller operated by the tough Hawkins and the steam engine with the elderly vicar at the throttle is, as Jack Black fans so often say, awesome. Even so, with their engine sent down a gully it looks finally that disaster has struck...and then the villagers remember the Titfield Thunderbolt. This old steam engine is so out of date it's been in the Titfield museum for years. It must be watered, fueled and run across country to the tracks if there is a hope of success. Well, there'll be more than a hope.
Charles Crichton, the director, keeps this movie moving with such briskness we might forget how skillful he is. Within five minutes he's given us the set-up. Within ten minutes he's introduced most of the characters. He places time-delay second takes in the movie so that we find one situation amusing and charming, then 20 minutes later it comes into play again in a different way that makes us smile even more broadly. If you want to see skillful comedy planning, keep an eye on Dan Taylor's hovel of a home.
Crichton let's us know these people much more by what they do than by what they say. The Titfield Thunderbolt is so good, so charming and so gentle because we see just how indomitable these people are going to be. They are faced with problem after problem. With ingenuity, perseverance, good cheer and astonishing improvisation, they overcome. When Crichton sends the people of Titfield and other nearby villages running across fields and dales to give the Thunderbolt a push up hill, it's grand. It takes a village to raise a steam engine. (And while the village of Titfield is fictitious, the movie was shot near the village of Limpley Stoke, an equally fine English name, which is not.)
Crichton was a maker of gems. You'll be rewarded if you track down and watch Hue and Cry (1947), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Battle of the Sexes (1959). He fell out of fashion and spent years in television. John Cleese rescued him for a last, victorious hurrah when he was 78 to co-write and direct A Fish Called Wanda.