During the silent film period, which in Britain lasted until roughly 1930, film production was a very international affair. Because the majority of the film’s plot was communicated to audiences with gesture, movement and facial expressions as opposed to dialogue, directors could relatively easily make films outside their own national context. One such director was the Hungarian Géza von Bolváry. Von Bolváry started his film directing career in Germany where he worked for most of the 1920s. In 1928, however, British International Pictures invited him to spend a year at the London studios. During this year he directed three silent films: Bright Eyes and The Vagabond Queen (both starring Betty Balfour), and The Wrecker.
The Wrecker was based on a 1924 play by the same name, which was also turned into a novel published in 1928. It is a prime example of the kind of cross-medial adaptations on which many interwar films are based. It is also one of several interwar British films which foreground public transport as a prime site of action.
The hero of The Wrecker is Roger ‘Lucky’ Doyle, the nephew of a train company magnate. A nefarious criminal, known only as ‘The Wrecker’, is repeatedly facilitating train crashes on Lucky’s uncle’s trainlines. Together with Mary, his uncle’s secretary (played by Benita Hume), Lucky attempts to uncover the Wrecker’s true identity. Eventually, with the help of the Wrecker’s female accomplice Beryl, Lucky finds out that his uncle’s business rival Ambrose Barney is behind the train crashes. Barney runs a company of long-distance charabancs, and the public’s panic about train crashes is boosting his own business. Lucky publicly denounces Barney, and of course wins Mary’s affections as well.
The Wrecker’s main selling point, both when it was released and today, is that Southern Railway allowed the studio to use its real rolling stock. Von Bolváry staged one spectacular train crash on a disused railway line, which is shown near the start of The Wrecker. The use of the real trains (as opposed to models) heightens the veracity of the crash scene and counteracts the sometimes somewhat overblown silent screen acting. The spectacle of the train crash was a draw for contemporary audiences. The value of the train crash sequence is underlined by the fact that its footage was reused for the Walter Forde-directed The Ghost Train which was released two years later.
Shortly after The Wrecker was released, cinema audiences could enjoy another train-based film with spectacular stunts. The Flying Scotsman, directed by Castleton Knight, was also released in 1929. This short feature is about an engine driver, Bob, who is working his last day on the London to Edinburgh line. A disgruntled ex-employee makes it onto the train with the intention of causing an accident. Bob’s daughter and a younger train colleague work together to avert the disaster.
Pauline Johnson, who played Barney’s accomplice Beryl in The Wrecker, takes the role of the leading lady in The Flying Scotsman, which sees her walking on the outside of an LNER train while it is in full motion. Johnson did the stunt herself, and like the crash scene in The Wrecker, the authenticity of the action creates a high-impact scene.
High-speed rail travel was not a novelty in interwar Britain. Trains had been running ever faster since their introduction in the early 19th century, and rail travel was popular for long-distance journeys and holiday travel. Although newspapers occasionally reported on the risks passengers faced on public transport, those risks were mainly due to other passengers, not technical faults. The almost simultaneous production of The Wrecker and The Flying Scotsman did not respond to a wider social anxiety about the safety of rail transport. Rather, it is likely that the technological advancements at the end of the silent era allowed directors to move their cameras more freely, which in turn enabled them to capture stunts and high-speed transport more effectively.
With the introduction and rapid expansion of sound film from 1930, cameras once again became static as they had to be connected to microphones and be kept still to avoid the recording of ambient noise. Filming actors clambering down the side of moving trains was no longer possible. By 1935 the climax of the action-comedy Bulldog Jack sees Jack Buchanan clamber over the top of a moving Tube, in an attempt to stop the rogue driver from crashing the train. Shots of characters inside the Tube are interspersed with shots taken from the front of the train and from platforms, and shots of Buchanan clambering horizontally across a ledge. The rapid editing gives the viewer the illusion that Buchanan is really on top of the train, but there is no doubt that the stunt is not real.
Although the introduction of sound film allowed for different types of storytelling on the screen, it also caused the loss of some visual capabilities which took decades to recover. The introduction of sound made film plots more dependent on dialogue, which also reduced the possibility of actors and directors working across national boundaries.
Bulldog Jack can be viewed on YouTube.