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Film / The Titfield Thunderbolt

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A 1953 comedy film produced by Ealing Studios and directed by Charles Crichton, set on a fictional British branch line between Titfield and Mallingford which has been condemned for closure by British Railways.

Sam Weech (George Relph), the village vicar, and Squire Gordon Chesterford (John Greyson), the grandson of the founder of the branch line, decide to buy the branch line and operate it themselves, with the help of a sizable donation from Walter Valentine (Stanley Holloway), a wealthy regular at the local pub.

This plan is bitterly opposed by the local bus company, Pearce and Crump, who were looking forward to a monopoly with the closure of the railway and call those wanting to run the railway "amateurs". They are also viewed with some trepidation by George Blakeworth (Naunton Wayne), the town clerk.

After an inquiry where both sides put forward their arguments for and against the railway being run by the amateurs, those wishing to run the railway are granted month's trial period before a railway inspector comes to decide if they can sufficiently operate a railway service.

Weech puts himself in the position of driver, Valentine puts forward Dan Taylor (Hugh Griffith), a retired railwayman, for the position of fireman and Chesterford takes up the position of guard.

Despite the bus company's attempts at sabotaging the railway's work, including blocking a crossing with a lorry full of bricks and shooting holes in the water tower, the railway becomes a huge success. The bus company then offers a merger between them and the railway, which is outright refused. So, on the eve before the inspection, the bus company derail the branch line's only engine and carriage and the town clerk is mistakenly arrested for derailing the train after trying to stop it before it crashed.

Meanwhile, Valentine and Taylor get drunk and take a pump trolley to Mallingford to steal another engine for the railway. This plan goes awry when they drive the engine through the town, across a park, and into a tree, resulting in their arrest.

After discovering their misfortune, Weech figures out where they can get an engine from for the inspection and rushes to the police station to release the town clerk. As they are wheeling the old engine out of the museum Weech realises that they haven't got a carriage, to which the clerk says that Taylor can help them. So they they take Taylor's home, an old railway carriage, and mount it on a flat wagon.

The next morning, the Inspector arrives to see the ensemble the railway has put on, but not before Ollie Matthews (Godfrey Tearle),the Bishop of Welchester — a fellow railway enthusiast and an old friend of Weech's — shows up for a visit and is drafted in as fireman. They are told by the local handyman that he's had to use rope to connect the engine to the flatbed because of the incompatible couplings between the two. Because the engine only has a weak handbrake, if they stop the train suddenly using the brakevan's stronger brake, the weight of the whole train would be put on the rope connecting the flatbed to the tender.

The lorry taking Taylor and Valentine to prison crashes with the bus from the rival bus company, the owners of which assume they've been rumbled causing one of them to admit their crimes.

Back at the station the train starts to leave, but is stopped and commandeered by the police to take them to Mallingford with the prisoners, now consisting of Valentine, Taylor and the two bus company owners. The train then continues until the inspector decides to test the emergency brake and the rope snaps, leaving the carriage and brakevan at a standstill and the engine continuing onwards. With the inspector none the wiser, Chesterford ropes in several locals to help push the stranded train down the hill to catch up with the engine which had come to a halt by the now repaired water tower. On the way they borrow a set of chains from the steamroller they jousted with, to replace the rope.

Once the train is recoupled to the engine they set off again, feeling there is now no hope of them making it on time after all the delays. They arrive at Mallingford ten minutes late and fear all is lost. The inspector informs them that actually, they only just passed (and almost failed because their average speed was almost over the limit). The villagers celebrate and the other drivers at the station blow their engines' whistles in celebration of their success.

The story is based on the preservation efforts of a group of people that went on to save the Talyllyn Railway, which could be classified as a Cool Railway, entirely worked, preserved, and funded by volunteers and indeed the first preserved railway in Britain.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Public Confession: When Pearce and Crump crash into the police van, Pearce blurts out, "We didn't do it, I tell you!" The policeman's response? "What didn't you do?"
  • The Alcoholic: Idle Rich Valentine as a key plot point; Weech and Gordon are able to secure funding from him based on his propensity for drinking as, in their words, "He's been standing people drinks for years, why wouldn't he stand us a railway?".
  • Biting-the-Hand Humour: Sam Weech, an Anglican vicar, says "Perhaps there were not men of sufficient faith in Canterbury" to prevent the closure of the Canterbury-Whitstable line. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the most senior figure in the Anglican church besides God and the sovereign so this counts as a Stealth Insult directed at his boss as well as indicating that railways are more important to him even than his religion.
  • Boring, but Practical: During the scene where the townsfolk clean up the station (clearly neglected by BR in anticipation of closing it) they're also seen moving in a large covered shelter for the train itself.While this is of rather stark design and out of keeping with the station it does illustrate an important point, now the train is based at Titfield they need somewhere to store it and do maintenance that would previously have been done in a BR railyard somewhere.
  • Break Out the Museum Piece: The titular Thunderbolt provides the trope image.
  • Butt-Monkey: If anyone is going to get doused in water or wrongfully arrested for wrecking a train, it'll be Mr. Blakeworth.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Sam's postcard of the Thunderbolt, Dan's railway carriage home, Sam's warning about the rope coupling.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Mr. Valentine, though being incredibly drunk all the time helps.
  • Cool Train: Two of them; The first is a generally normal-looking tank engine, a BR 14xx "auto tank" engine to be exact, used to joust against a steamroller. Not forgetting the titular Thunderbolt. It should be noted that Lion, the engine that played Thunderbolt, was well over 100 years old at the time the film was made.
    • The air-smoothed express train seen briefly at the beginning is pretty cool, too.
  • Drives Like Crazy: How about driving a railway locomotive along the road?
  • Drowning My Sorrows: When the engine is destroyed by Crump and Pearce the night before the railway inspection, Dan steals the surviving booze from the buffet car and gets completely blotto. He's soon joined by a similarly lamenting Mr. Valentine and they hatch a plan to steal another engine which leads to...
  • Drunk Driver: Dan and Valentine, in the process of stealing an engine, end up driving it away on the road.
  • Enemy Mine: Harry, the steamroller driver, loathes the railway and refuses to provide any assistance... until Miss Hampton promises to marry him.
  • Free Wheel: When the railway's first locomotive is derailed.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Pearce and Crump's efforts to sabotage the railway amount to a Humiliation Conga of Pyrrhic Victories. By the end of the story they're bankrupt and imprisoned.
  • List of Transgressions: The Long List of charges against Valentine and Taylor, amounting to stealing a locomotive and driving it through a town, devolves into increasingly minor offenses:
    Policeman (completely deadpan): Drunk and disorderly, taking away a locomotive without owner's permission, driving under the influence of alcohol, driving an unlicensed vehicle on the road, careless driving, not keeping to line of traffic, ignoring pedestrian crossing, failing to observe traffic sign, causing ashes and/or sparks to be emitted on highway, driving the wrong side of road, failing to report accident, malicious damage, inadequate lights, excessive noise, defective tyres...
  • Loophole Abuse: Gordon points out to their would-be benefactor Valentine that, whilst licensing laws prevent pubs from opening in the morning, there are no rules to limit the serving of alcohol on trains at any time.
    Gordon: Mr. Valentine, what do you do in the morning before this place opens?
    Valentine: I wait impatient for the day to dawn.
    Gordon: Suppose the day dawned at 13 minutes to nine.
    Valentine: Mr. Chesterford, you're a poet, a dreamer of beautiful dreams.
    Gordon: There is nothing in law to prevent a railway company opening a bar in one of its trains whenever that train is under way. Give us your backing and we'll run a bar on the Titfield-Mallingford line every morning and afternoon.
    Valentine: You... you wouldn't tease an old man, would you? Mr. Weech, you wouldn't joke about a sacred subject.
    Sam Weech: I am assured it will be quite, quite legal.
    Gordon: You can write your own timetable.
    Valentine: My very dear sir, you can write your own cheque!
  • Love Interest: Miss Hampton to Harry.
  • National Rail: The background element to the plot, though then known as British Railways. The Titfield Branch was representative of the many rural branchlines cut from BR.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Pearce and Crump's sabotage serves to wreck their lorry, to put Harry's steamroller out of action and to get lots of publicity for a tiny little country branch line.
  • Oh, Crap!: A comedic example arises when their amateur railway seems to be a roaring success.
    Gordon: Something's got to be done. Any more weeks like these last few and we shall be running at a profit!
    Emily *looking up from the ledger* : Excuse me sir... but we are running at a profit.
    Sam Weech: This is dreadful! The next thing we know we shall be nationalised.
  • Rail Enthusiast: Vicar Sam Weech and Ollie Matthews, the Bishop of Welchester are both this. Real life railway enthusiasts tend to be big fans of this film, as in addition to its Cool Train content, it's perhaps the best and most affectionate portrayal of train fandom.
    • Meta example: T. E. B. Clarke, the screenwriter, became a Rail Enthusiast in the course of researching the film.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Ministry official is stern and humourless, but ultimately gives the line his blessing. Mr Blakeworth isn't a fan of the line at first, but comes around. The Bishop of Welcester is less concerned with reprimanding his absentee vicar than with getting his hands dirty on the engine.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder: From the random train-goer who has the temerity to take Mr. Valentine's spot at the bar.
    Valentine: Excuse me. Pardon. May I trouble you, sir? I'm afraid you have my corner.
    Barfly: Your corner? You think you own the ruddy railway?
    Valentine: Yes.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: As with many Ealing comedies, this film targets the widespread closure of smaller lines by British Railways and the increase in road traffic. It also deals with the then-novel concept of preserved railways.
  • Rousing Speech: Just when it looks like the inquiry will insist the branch line be closed anyway, Gordon delivers one of these letting the town know exactly what the death of their railway will entail.
    Gordon: You're condemning our village to death! Open it up to buses and lorries and what will it be like in five years? Our lanes will be concrete roads. Our houses will have numbers instead of names. There'll be traffic lights and zebra crossings, that'll be twice as dangerous. Go by bus! We're not asking for a monopoly, like you are. All we're asking for is the chance to keep our train running. Mr Blakeworth, you spoke frankly. You said people were scared of our idea. Perhaps you're one of them. But give us a chance and we'll prove we can do it. Just give us this one chance, sir. It means everything to our village. We want to run the railway.
  • Shown Their Work: The film almost completely avoids Just Train Wrong, except when Rule of Funny is involved. See Drives Like Crazy.
  • Show Within a Show: When Pearce and Crump take a dejected Harry aside to discuss sabotage, we cut to a wild-west film playing in the bar where a bunch of cowboys are discussing sabotaging a train.
  • Strawman Political: The Union official seen briefly at the town meeting, who's determined to stop all worker exploitation whether it actually exists or not.
  • Streisand Effect: In-universe, the line gets lots of negative publicity due to the bus company's sabotage efforts, and as a result becomes so well known that it becomes one of the only profitable branch lines in Britain.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: "We didn't do it! It wasn't us!" At this point, nobody had accused them of anything...
  • Track Trouble: The sabotage employed by the bus company includes this.
  • Vehicle Title
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Although inspired by the real life Talyllyn Railway, in reality very little beyond the basic concept of volunteers taking over a closed railway made it to the screen.
  • The Vicar: Reverend Weech, and to a lesser extent, the Bishop of Welchester.