Talking Pictures

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24 Window Frames a Second: Trains in British Films

Posted by keith1942 on February 20, 2015

Brief opening

This article aims to offer some general comments about trains in British films between 1900 and 1950, illustrated by a few key examples.

A number of authors have discussed how the Railways and Cinema are both not only key technologies and institutions of the nineteenth century, but how they also share certain characteristics. Ian Christie comments on one of the first moving images to be projected to an audience, the Lumière’s Arrival of a train. (Arrivée d’un train en gare a La Ciotat 1896).

Railways already loomed large in the common experience and folklore of the late nineteenth century. First there was the new experience of mechanical speed, both terrifying and exhilarating for those who had only known horse or wind power. Then there was literally, a new outlook on the world as it sped past the train windows. … From the carriage window to the screen was an easy transition. It’s tempting to say that sixty years of railways had prepared people to be film spectators. (Christie 1994)

Some of the earliest moving camera shots were taken from trains. ‘Phantom Rides’ were a popular early film genre, treating audiences to exotic locales in the Alps and the North American West. Closer to home British audiences could watch In the Scottish Highlands (1907) or Burnham Beeches (1909 – Fletcher 2003). An extremely popular variant was Hales Tours, where mocked up train carriages provided access to projected film scenery, a sort of reverse of the above. One of the most famous magical films by Georges Méliès, a few years after the Lumière’s pioneer actualités (actualities), is a train journey – to the stars (Voyaged travers l’impossible, 1904).

The most popular 1930s documentary from the GPO Film Unit led by John Grierson, and one of the few seen by audiences in commercial cinemas, was Night Mail (1936). There is an exciting rush as the train is

. . . Crossing the border … / Pulling up Beattock, A steady climb/ The gradient’s against her, But she’s on time.

The words of W. H. Auden and the music of Benjamin Britten accentuate the filming. (In fact, there is a low budget thriller from the year before with the same title, set on the London to Aberdeen express).

How can we explain this fascination the railroad holds for the cinema? Why does the silent film seem to privilege the train – including the trolley, elevated railway and subway – over other forms of transportation, both older (the horse, the coach) and newer (the automobile, the airplane)? Some would see the cinema’s interest in the train as that of a double: the cinema finds an apt metaphor in the train, in its framed, moving image, its construction of a journey as an optical experience, the radical juxtaposition of different places, the “annihilation of space and time.” As a machine of vision and an instrument for conquering space and time, the train is a mechanical double for the cinema and for the transport of the spectator into fiction, fantasy, and dream. It is a metaphor in the Greek sense of the word: movement, the conveyance of meaning. Like film’s illusion of movement, the experience of the railroad is based on a fundamental paradox: simultaneous motion and stillness. In both cases, passengers sit still as they rush through space and time, whether physically and visually, as on the train, or merely visually, as in the cinema. The train would then be cinema’s mirror image in the sequential unfolding of a chain of essentially still images and the rapid shift of points of view that the train and cinema experiences entail. (Lynne Kirby, 1997)

This quotation suggests how trains work in films in a number of different ways. The audience view replicates to some degree that of the passenger in a carriage looking through the window. The combination of rapid motion and relaxed observation are common to both. The promise of new places and new experiences is part of the excitement of each. And while both also promise a definite end to our journey, we expect some interruptions and changes, even shocks, en route. We think we know our destination, but the lack of certainty offers a certain spice.

The Kiss in the Tunnel 1899

The Kiss in the Tunnel 1899

The parallels and connections between these two modern technologies were apparent to early filmmakers and audiences. Filmmakers were soon using trains in the emerging narrative films that were to become the staple of commercial cinema. A popular scene for early short films was The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899). Sometimes this was a risqué story, sometimes a joke with a twist when the man kissed the wrong female – in a darkened space just like the cinema. As a space for breaching or skirting taboos on sexual activity cinemas also crossed over with trains. A filmic advertising jingle ran,

Take your girlie to the movies (if you can’t make love at home). (BBC / WGBH 1995).

Trains provided the gateway to another world, often a world where the ties of normal life could be loosened. Mitchell & Kenyon’s early films show workers taking trains to the holiday resorts in Wakes Week. In Hindle Wakes (1927) the world of the Wakes holiday is signalled by the title card, “Ecstasy, Freedom” and a train journey. And it is in the holiday resorts of Blackpool, and then Llandudno, that the heroine Fanny finds sexual freedom and pleasure. A similar situation is played out in Bank Holiday, (1937). Catherine, a nurse, has an illicit holiday weekend with her boyfriend Geoffrey in Besborough (a fictional seaside resort, the actual locations were filmed in Hastings). On the train this modern, independent miss justifies the pleasures of ‘free love’.

You know my opinions. You know I think we are justified.

In fact, apparent morality intervenes and she returns to London without spending an illicit hotel night with Geoffrey. Instead she comforts a grieving (and sexually placid) widower.

The use of suspense and the expectations of shock are evident in the 1935 film The Last Journey.

“The protagonist – engineer (Bob) … experiences overwhelming psychological distress, which he attempts to resolve by running the train off the tracks. As the train heads for collision, the shots become shorter, the frame bursts with images of furious wheels intercut with the contorted face of a hysteric reflected against stroboscopic lights and signals working with a demented force of their own. The character, however, snaps before the derailment metaphor is translated into action. The locomotive slows down, and the train pulls safely into the junction.” (Laurence Kardish, 1991)

The Last Journey

The Last Journey

The crash is averted through the bravery of a consultant (Sir Wilfred) who uses hypnotism to calm the crazed engineer.

Look, along the rails – straight ahead – that’s it, watch them Bob, watch them.”

This use of the rails for medical hypnosis returns us to the viewpoint of the early Lumière film, which begins

at that point in the distance where all lines converge.” (Kardish, 1991).

Train of Events (1949) opens with the crash of a locomotive. Then the film traces the events that led to five passengers and the driver being on that train. The passengers are all escaping from something. A composer (Raymond) attempts to end an extra-marital affair with his concert pianist mistress. An ex-German POW (Richard) tries to avoid returning to Germany. His English girlfriend (Ella), who has stolen to buy his ticket to a new life in Canada, aids him. And an actor (Philip) carries the body of his murdered wife in his prop basket. The interest is held by the set of portmanteau stories and by the desire to find out which of these characters will live and which will die. In the end the crashing train becomes an instrument of justice, and Philip and Ella are the ones who die.

Lynne Kirby explores the idea that there is a facet of railways expressing certain masculinity. And in this film, as in many railway films, women suffer disproportionately. Two of the three deaths are female.

The Last Journey includes a trio of crooks and Train of Events a murderer, attempting to evade justice. Criminality and law enforcement, especially pursuit, soon became associated with trains on film. One of the earliest surviving narrative films in British Cinema, Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) culminates in a train journey. The police apprehend the thief at the end of his ride.

The films of Alfred Hitchcock, as might be expected, are rich in their use of the trains and pursuits, both by criminals and by spies. In Secret Agent (1936) the German spy, Marvin, dies in a crash, killed by the train rather than the British Agent, Ashenden. The 39 Steps (1935) has Richard Hannay on the run for a supposed murder, evading both police and enemy agents. The train provides his means of escape from pursuers. It also carries him to wild and romantic locales in Scotland. And the train enables Hitchcock to reprise an earlier film motif when Hannay kisses an attractive female, but a complete stranger, to escape detection. (Hitchcock plays another variation or homage to early film for the end of North by North West, US 1959).

Entering the tunnel, 1899.

Entering the tunnel, 1899.

In The Lady Vanishes the heroine, Iris, becomes involved in spies and intrigue on a continental express. Suffering from concussion after a suspicious blow on the head, she is assisted by kind English matron, Miss Froy. However, Miss Froy disappears and Iris, with increasing desperation, searches for the missing lady. An eccentric English musicologist Gilbert assists her. He also turns out to be a hero, climbing bravely and with agility from one compartment to another as another train thunders by. In the course of the train journey we see also kidnappings, murder, unmasking, betrayal and violent conflict. But as well as utilising the train for melodramatic events, the film also plays on the visual connections. Miss Froy is a British spy kidnapped by enemy agents. Iris and Gilbert receive two visual revelations/clues as they investigate the disappearance. One is the abducted agent’s name, seen only by Iris, traced on the carriage window. The second is an incriminating tea label, spotted by Gilbert, momentarily stuck to the restaurant widow. Both are seen fleetingly and then gone. The audience shares their visual experience in the viewing of the film as they spy these clues in the unravelling mystery.

'Froy', at the bottom of the window.

‘Froy’, at the bottom of the window.

This play with the visual affinities of film and train re-appears in a wartime melodrama, Waterloo Road (1944). Expressing similar anxieties as those found in Hollywood film noir, the hero Jim goes absent from the army because he fears his wife is being seduced by a spiv, Purvis. Prior to the dramatic climax there is a scene where the wife, Tillie, stops in front of a photographer’s window and gazes at a picture of her wedding in the display. This leads to a flashback where husband and wife board the train heading off for their honeymoon destination, and the previously barred pleasures of marriage. In contrast, the Underground in the film is clearly domesticated within the community, providing alternative communal accommodation and sleeping during the Blitz. London’s subterranean transport network provides a parallel setting in the 1928 Underground. Scenes of violence occur there but stability is represented by Bill who works on the underground and is the romantic hero opposed to Bert who works in a Power Station.

But the key film expressing this visual affinity is Brief Encounter (1945). One reason that might explain the long-lasting appeal of this 1940s classic is that it is an intensively reflexive story. It is a film about cinema. This is clear in the scene that follows the opening sequence. The film has introduced the two lovers, Laura and Alec, at the moment of their parting. This is the end of the affair and the story. There follows Laura’s train journey home. Then, sitting in her front room, lulled by the romantic chords of the Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, Laura remembers her affair. Just as in a cinema, a projection appears before her and she, and we, enter the world of romance. It is an emotional world, signalled by the powerful musical strains, plotted as a radio broadcast. Laura is a similar position to that of the audience at the cinema, who, later in the film, watch the [fictional] feature, ‘Flames of Passion’.

In this film/flashback within the film the railway and the train are key actors. The affair begins in a station bar, sparked by the grit thrown up by a passing train. The affair continues on a weekly basis, courtesy of the local rail service when Laura makes her regular Thursday visits to the market town of Milford. Just over halfway through the film Alec and Laura openly declare their love. Then, her husband Fred calls Laura back from her dream, as he turns down the music.

Laura returns to her reverie. She remembers the train journey home after that declaration of love. On the train she fondly imagines an alternative ending to the affair, one where she and Alex romantically travel across Europe. Gazing out the train window as the evening landscape passes she has “one of those absurd fantasies just like one has when one is a girl.” As she stares “into the darkness”, she imagines “Alec and me” on a journey to romantic and exotic places. And this dream is shown projected through the carriage window as Laura dreamily stares into the night.

Laura's dream/film

Laura’s dream/film

But the love affair comes to an end; mostly, it would seem, because the lovers cannot cope with the deception and the pressure of social mores. On the last Thursday, after Alec has left, Laura contemplates throwing herself under a train. This would be a similar end to that Tolstoy’s famous heroine, Anna Karenina [filmed in the UK in 1947]. However, Laura draws back from the final act and boards the train bearing her back to comfortable married suburbia. Also, at this point in the plotting, she returns from her dream of forbidden love. If it is a dream, then for much of the film it is one induced by the lulling rhythms of the train.

The 1950s were rather an anti-climax after the 1940s. And indeed, in this period the train seems to lose some of its appeal and significance. The motor car and the aeroplane were replacing the railways’ key social role. Two of the more memorable train films of this period are exercises in nostalgia. And in both the train engine is a museum relic.

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) shows a group of train enthusiasts trying to resist the “closure of the oldest branch line in the world.” They set up an independent rail service, led by the vicar and the squire. At the climax, the rival Bus Company sabotages the engine the night before a crucial inspection. So the Titfield villagers raid the village museum and resuscitate the venerable old Thunderbolt locomotive. The film ends with this nineteenth century museum piece carrying the passengers seated in a redundant carriage, previously home to the local poacher. And the engine is driven by the vicar and stoked by his rail-enthusiast Bishop, clad in his scarlet bib.

Northwest Frontier also returns to the nineteenth century, as imperial warrior Captain Scott fends off the uncivilised tribal hordes to rescue the rightful, westernised prince. The escape is effected behind another museum piece engine, ‘Empress of India’, tended on this occasion by a loyal Indian, Gupta. In both films, the audience is invited to escape to the past.

The Titfield Thunderbolt

The Titfield Thunderbolt


Anna Karenina London Films 1947. Dir: Julien Duvivier, script Julien Duvivier, Jean Anouilh, Guy Morgan, from the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Cast: Vivien Leigh (Anna).

Brief Encounter, Cineguild 1945. Dir: David Lean, script Noel Coward, David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock­-Allan from Coward’s play Still Life. Cast: Celia Johnson (Laura), Trevor Howard (Alec), Cyril Raymond (Fred).

Bank Holiday, Gainsborough 1937. Dir: Carol Reed, script Rodney Ackland. Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Catherine), Hugh Williams (Geoffrey).

Daring Daylight Robbery, Sheffield Photographic Company, 1903. Dir: Frank Mottershaw, 258 feet.

Hindle Wakes, Gaumont-British, 1927. Dir: Maurice Elvey: from the stage play by Stanley Houghton. Estelle Brody (Fanny).

The Lady Vanishes, Gainsborough, 1938. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; script A. R. Rawlinson. Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy).

The Last Journey, Twickenham 1935. Dir: Bernard Vorhaus; script John Soutar and H. Fowler Mear: Julian Mitchell (Bob), Godfrey Tearle (Sir Wilfred Rhodes).

Night Mail GPO 1936. Dir. and script: Basil Wright, Harry Watt [with material by Alberto Cavalcanti uncredited].

Northwest Frontier, Rank 1959. Dir: J. Lee Thompson; script Robin Estridge, Frank Nugent, Robert Westerby from the novel by Patrick Ford. Cast: Kenneth More (Captain Scott), I. S. Johar (Gupta), Govind Raja Ross (young prince).

Secret Agent, Gaumont-British 1936. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; script Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Jesse Lasky Jr, Alma Reville from the play by Campbell Dixon and the stories by Somerset Maugham. Cast: John Gielgud (Ashenden), Robert Young (Marvin).

The Kiss in the Tunnel, George Albert Smith 1899; also director. Distributed by the Warwick Trading Company. 75 feet in length.

The Titfield Thunderbolt, Ealing 1952. Dir: Charles Crichton; script T.E.B. Clarke. Cast: Stanley Holloway, George Relph, John Gregson, Naunton Wayne, Godfrey Teale.

Train of Events, Ealing Studios 1949. Dir. Sidney Cole, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, script Basil Dearden, T.E.B. Clarke, Angus Macphail, Ronald Millar. Cast: John Clements (Raymond), Lawrence Payne (Richard), Joan Dowling (Ella), Peter Finch (Philip).

The 39 Steps, Gaumont-British 1935. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; script Charles Bennett, Alma Reville, Ian Hay from the novel by John Buchan. Cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela).

Waterloo Road, Gainsborough 1944. Dir: Sidney Gilliat; script Sidney Gilliat.

Joy Shelton (Tillie), John Mills (Jim) Stewart Granger (Purvis).

Underground, British Instructional Film 1928. Dir: Anthony Asquith, also scenario. Cast: Elissa Landi as Nell, Norah Baring as Kate, Brian Aherne as Bill, Cyril McLaglen as Bert.


BBC / WGBH 1995, ‘The Great Escape’ from The People’s Century 1900 – 1999, shown on BBC Television.

The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon, BBC / bfi 2005. A selection from this early UK film archive which toured Regional Film Theatres.

Tony Fletcher 2003, films from the BFI Archives presented at Location! Location! Location! Landscape, place and travel in pre 1930 Cinema, The Sixth British Silent Cinema Weekend 2003, Nottingham Broadway.

Ian Christie (1994) The Lost Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World, bfi. The book accompanied a series of programmes shown on BBC Television. [Pages 16, 17, 18}.

Laurence Kardish (1991) in Junction and Journey Trains and Film, The Museum of Modern Art. [Pages 11 and 12.]

Lynne Kirby, (1997), Parallel Tracks The Railroad and Silent Cinema, Duke University Press. [Page 2).

This article has been developed from an illustrated talk given by the author at the Redbridge Museum in Ilford, (arranged through the BFI Associate Tutor Scheme, now defunct), to accompany ‘On the Move’, an exhibition on Transport. It was originally printed in MEJ (Media Education Journal) Issue 37, Spring 2005: thanks to the editor for agreeing to posting it here.


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