The Flying Scotsman Review

Ray Milland’s cinematic debut, considered by some to be Britain’s first ever talking picture.

Not to be mistaken with the 2006 Graeme Obree biopic of the same name, this Flying Scotsman is a snappy little British thriller from 1929 with at least two claims to fame. Firstly, it provided a young Ray Milland with his cinematic debut, and secondly, it is considered by some to the very first British sound feature. Milland gets third billing, the lead role being occupied by Moore Marriott, here playing train driver Old Bob. As the picture opens Bob is a single journey on the Flying Scotsman away from retirement. He’s also just reported his fireman Crow (Alec Hurley) for being drunk on the job, an offence which results in his instant dismissal. This being a thriller Crow decides upon revenge, meaning that Bob’s perfect record over thirty years of employment may not end on such a positive note. In the meantime, his daughter (Pauline Johnson) also gets plenty of screen time courtesy of a cutesy little romance with Milland – unbeknownst to her father – who also happens to be Crow’s replacement on the upcoming job.

Coming so early in the transition to talking pictures, The Flying Scotsman was originally intended to be a silent. The decision to move to sound only came after production had begun and as such this is very much a film of two halves. The first, which sets out the exposition and romance discussed above, is told in the silent mode complete with intertitles and soundtrack consisting solely of the score. The second, which is occupied almost entirely by the action packed finale, is done as a sound feature with multiple dialogue scenes and all the sound effects you would expect from being aboard the titular Scotsman. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this shift in production methods at the midway point also prompts some ill-effects.

The first half, however, is superbly paced and thoroughly entertaining. It helps, no doubt, that the actors at hand are a solid bunch. Marriott should be familiar to fans of British cinema having been a mainstay in the thirties vehicles of Will Hay and the Crazy Gang, whilst Milland, of course, would go on to a massive Hollywood career and an Academy Award. Interestingly, Marriott had only just passed the age of forty when he took on the role of Old Bob, yet still manages to convince as a man quickly approaching retirement age. Milland, on the other hand, looks incredibly young, but there’s no denying a certain charisma already in his possession. Though their careers hardly matched either Marriott or Milland, both Johnson and Hurley easily occupy the screen alongside them. According to the BFI’s Film and TV Database, Hurley never made another appearance in front of the camera and this was only his second role, an unfortunate occurrence as he’s clearly enjoying the villainy The Flying Scotsman allows him. Johnson, on the other hand, may ring a bell with those who have seen The Wrecker, another British train-set thriller from the late 1920s which can easily be tracked down on disc.

If there’s talent on the screen, then it’s also true of those behind the camera. Interestingly, many of the major crew members would go on to work with Alfred Hitchcock before his move to America. Editor A.C. Hammond would later provide a similar service on Number Seventeen, writer Garnett Weston shared a screenplay credit with Charles Bennett on Blackmail, and composer John Reynders acted as conductor on Blackmail, Murder! and Elstree Calling. The fact that British International Pictures was the production company for both The Flying Scotsman and many of these Hitchcock films (and more besides) no doubt played its part too. (And let’s not forget Milland’s subsequent lead in Dial M for Murder.) Indeed, given the brisk pacing and streamlined plotting, any comparisons to early Hitchcock aren’t that hard earned. The railway setting prompts similarities too, most blatantly with The 39 Steps (which also used the Flying Scotsman to further its tale), but also the finale to Number Seventeen.

This dramatic efficiency is best explained in the manner The Flying Scotsman introduces Milland’s character. He’s there almost from the start, initially winning a game of poker against his co-workers which immediately demonstrates his cocky nature. From here we catch him on a night out, cheekily dancing with the first woman who comes to hand and then fending off her husband thanks, at first, to a bit of quick thinking and then courtesy of a well-placed fist. Two scenes amongst those revolving around Old Bob and already the basic characteristics are in place: sure of himself, an eye for the ladies, in possession of a keen mind and a bit of a tough guy. Combine these with Milland’s winning screen presence and The Flying Scotsman has no problems in making him a convincing romantic lead alongside Johnson. And all within the space of, effectively, a few minutes – the film really is that tightly constructed. Except we soon reach the midway point and Milland is expected to open his mouth…

Given that The Flying Scotsman was made at such an early stage in the development of sound production, the quality of the soundtrack clearly shows its age and to a degree that, even though we’re getting a brand new restoration here, little can be done to improve matters. But this is only part of the problem and more damaging is the fact that the dialogue scenes are so awkwardly staged and so static that they can’t help but interrupt the snappy pace. Furthermore, the stilted manner in which the dialogue is delivered also causes issues with the characterisation; Milland’s cocksure swagger of his opening scenes, for example, seems entirely mismatched with his clean and deliberate diction. Similarly the early scenes in which director Castleton Knight (arguably best known nowadays for his documentary credits, having produced the official films of the 1948 London Olympics and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II) and cameraman Theodor Sparkuhl (whose previous experience involved regular work on Ernst Lubitsch’s German films) adopt occasional expressionistic touches – such as the low-angle shots when Milland’s character receives the bill in a swanky restaurant – are replaced by much flatter blocking dictated solely by microphone placement rather than any artistic ingenuity.

However, such considerations and criticisms only apply to some of The Flying Scotsman’s second half as here we also find plenty of action and stunt work aboard the genuine article. In many ways the Scotsman is the real star of the film and gets as many, if not more, loving shots as any of our leading actors. The footage still looks remarkable to this day as Johnson and Hurley walk across moving carriages or Milland hangs over the side of the locomotive perilously close to the tracks. The London and North East Railway (LNER) gave full permission to the filmmakers allowing their cameras onboard during actual journeys from Kings Cross to Waverley. And, of course, the realism goes some way to cancelling out some of the stagier scenes either side. Not that such things would ever happen in real life of course, as the LNER statement about health and safety standards during the opening credits makes perfectly clear!


Optimum are releasing The Flying Scotsman on a single-layered disc encoded for Region 2. Given the film’s brief running time (57 minutes) and complete lack of extras, this causes no problems when it comes to the transfer. Indeed, The Flying Scotsman looks absolutely terrific having recently been treated to a brand new restoration. Damage has been minimised and the image looks spectacularly crisp – you need only look at the nudie cards Milland uses for his poker game to realise the levels of clarity and contrast. For a standard definition presentation, it really is difficult to imagine the film looking any better. Of course, the soundtrack is unable to fare quite so well, though there are no issues during the first half when it has only the score to deal with. Optional subtitles would have been preferable given the level of hiss and background noise during the later dialogue scenes, though sadly this isn’t to be. Likewise, there’s disappointment in the absence of special features. Surely given the subject (and therefore the appeal to railway enthusiasts), the recent restoration and the status The Flying Scotsman has as one of the first, possibly even the first, sound pictures there is enough scope for some contextualising or additional material?

Anthony Nield

Updated: Feb 22, 2011

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