Bob White (Moore Marriott) has been driving the Flying Scotsman on the London to Edinburgh route for decades. The day before his final voyage he reports his stoker, Crow, for being drunk on the job. Crow is sacked and decides to board the train, vowing to take his revenge on White. Meanwhile, Crow’s replacement, a jack the lad by the name of Jim (Ray Milland) has been romancing Jean, not realising that she is White’s daughter. Jean gets wind of Crow’s plan and boards the train as well, hoping to avert disaster.
The Flying Scotsman is something of a historical artifact, being the first full-length British film to feature sound. It was made by British International Pictures, though distributed by Warner Bros, who had of course made and released 1927’s The Jazz Singer, which was the first talkie to make its way onto the big screen. In truth the film is something of a hybrid, consisting of a first half that one might call a good old fashioned silent film, with musical score, inter-titles and an affected, artificial-feeling acting style, before the second half gives us scenes loaded with dialogue and sound effects.
In actuality, The Flying Scotsman was converted to a talkie in post-production, perhaps as much as a year after the film wrapped. It certainly has a certain jarring effect on the viewer, as even after sound is introduced, a couple of scenes revert back to silence. Although there are plenty of impressive locomotive noises, well-synchronised dialogue and a couple of passable acting performances, the fact remains that this is a film notable for its historical significance, but lacking any enduring impact or appeal on its own merits. The digital restoration has clearly been lovingly carried out and the sequences involving various characters climbing along the outside of the train are impressive, but the acting style remains exceedingly dated, demonstrating again why relatively few films from the silent era retain solid classic status.
It’s interesting seeing Ray Milland in his very first performance. He would go on to Dial M For Murder, The Lost Weekend and Love Story and he has plenty of sly, confident charisma here. Neither Jean nor Crow come across as especially convincing, though Marriott acquits himself as the aging driver (though only in his mid-forties, he deftly conveys the character’s 60-odd years). In a film that is over inside of an hour, pacing is not really a problem and given that the climax involves a runaway train, events become suitably energetic, tense and eventful as the finale approaches.
An interesting curio then, but perhaps not for everyone. The restoration premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival at the end of February and you can also catch the Flying Scotsman locomotive itself, also restored, at an upcoming exhibition at The National Railway Museum. You can find more information on that here and you can get hold of a copy of the film on DVD at LoveFilm here. There’s a clip below courtesy of Optimum Releasing.