The Flying Scotsman (1929) – Review

Meet the film that introduced sound to cinema...

The Flying Scotsman, digitally restored and released on DVD for the very first time, is notable in UK film history for possibly being the first British movie to use sound. In this respect, it is a truly ground-breaking film – like the recent re-emergence of 3D technology in cinema across the world, the advent of the sound era changed the way people understood and enjoyed cinema. Without getting too technical, the sound in this film was recorded externally and added afterwards. The sound-syncing is done so well that you would never be able to tell, if not for the first part of the film in which there are no diegetic sounds and classic “word panels” are used as dialogue. The diegetic sound starts in the bar scene without warning, and stays for the remainder of the film. Why the sound couldn’t have been added to the earlier scenes remains a mystery.

Technology aside, the film is a bog-standard runaway train story. It hasn’t aged well and, aside from some pretty intense stunt scenes, much of the film seems quaint and obvious. If in the first five minutes of the film you can’t spot what the main crux of the story is going to be then you’re simply not paying attention. To be clear; Bob, a train driver, with a long and unblemished record of making the long journey from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, has just one journey left till retirement. He gets Crow, his fire stoker, sacked for drinking on the train, who is now out for revenge.

The train story, the main body of the film, plays alongside a love story that takes place between Bob’s daughter, Joan, and Jim, the handsome replacement fire stoker. Their love story is overwrought and cringe-worthy, even by the standards of the time. Both characters are one-dimensional and their relationship serves no real purpose story-wise outside of increasing the dramatic tension when Joan has to eventually save the day, taking some ludicrously unsafe measures as she does so. Running at a slim 57 minutes, the film still manages to feel overly long and, without the technological accolade that this film has, probably would have disappeared into the mists of time.

Overall the film is a technical achievement but lacks heart. Keeping in mind that at the time of the film’s original release – 1929 – we had already seen Charlie Chaplin’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful film The Kid, FW Murnau’s horrifying Nosferatu, and Sergei Eisenstein’s tense masterpiece The Battleship Potemkin, this film pales in comparison. While in places it is beautifully shot – the train-walking sequence looks as fantastic as it was dangerous – it’s ultimately a film without heart, seemingly made to cash in on a new technology. It’s a satisfying Sunday afternoon movie, when you’re filled up with roast dinner and just looking for something to watch and not really think about. If you’re looking for something with substance then look elsewhere, as substance is something this film simply doesn’t have.

Best performance: Alec Hurley as Crow. On occasion, his evil face is hilarious.
Best scene: Joan walking along the edge of the train.
Best line ‘It’s your last journey before you retire tomorrow, and not one single accident. What an unbroken record. That’s impressive (and so on).’
Watch this if you like: Relaxing in front of the telly on a Sunday afternoon, stuffed with dinner.

Sir Nigel Gresley, real-life chief engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway (the company responsible for operating the Flying Scotsman) was so concerned with the unsafe practices in the film that he insisted on a disclaimer being shown at the beginning of the film and forbade any further filming on the Flying Scotsman until after his retirement.

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