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DVD Review: ‘The Flying Scotsman’

★★★★☆

Last year, Optimum Releasing’s remastered versions of The Railway Children (1970), Breathless (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) were released as part of their continuing efforts to preserve a vast catalogue of classic titles. Castleton Knight’s The Flying Scotsman (1929) is the latest feature to receive extensive digital restoration and is now available to own for the first time on DVD. The film tells the story of the imminently retiring Bob White (Moore Marriott), an engine driver of the elite Flying Scotsman express that has run daily between London and Edinburgh since 1862.

On the day before his last run, White reports his stoker Crow (Alec Hurley) for drinking on duty, an action that results in Crow’s instant dismissal. The film’s momentum is built through anticipation of Crow’s explicitly declared vengeance against White and replacement stoker Jim Edwards (Ray Milland). Meanwhile, a chance encounter at a party leads to a blossoming relationship between Edwards and White’s feisty daughter Joan (Pauline Johnson). Father, daughter and suitor all remain ignorant of their mutual connection until Joan overhears Crow’s spiteful intentions and follows him on board the train as it sets off on White’s final run. The scene is thus set for a thrilling finale, in which Crow wreaks his revenge and plunges the train into mortal danger, leaving it to Joan to save the day.

The strength of The Flying Scotsman lies primarily in its revenge plot, which builds simply but skilfully to an exciting climax. Crow is characterised in broad, one dimensional terms as a stereotypical villain, and Alec Hurley’s performance makes Crow’s malice truly tangible. Crow’s failure to take responsibility for his own mistakes and his excessive anger towards White (who even apologies to him for doing his duty), are never addressed but are made surprisingly easy to accept because he is required to instigate the disaster. Once the idea of revenge has been established, the audience are encouraged to rail against the stock baddie and root for the kindly, conservative engine driver.

The romantic thread of the film is less satisfying. Ray Milland, best known for Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder (1954) and The Lost Weekend (1945), makes his debut here as young lothario Jim. Milland is playful and charismatic and there is some pleasing on screen chemistry with Pauline Johnson as plucky heroine Joan. Johnson plays Joan with determination and liveliness, and the character’s ability to see immediately through and laugh at Jim’s well-worn seduction technique makes her hugely likeable. However, the love story element is overly-long and overemphasised. It becomes a tiresome comedy of misunderstanding that ends up taking too much focus from the main story.

The cinematography of the climactic scenes is also memorable, with the train (which is indeed the actual Flying Scotsman locomotive) cutting through fog and wild landscapes to emphasise the very real danger of Johnson’s daredevil, high-speed stunts. These action sequences are the highlight of The Flying Scotsman, and show to full effect the impressive sound and picture quality of the film after its remastering.

Holly Cooper