by Geoffrey Churchman
The original movie The Railway Children, based on a novel by E. Nesbit was released in 1970 and was very popular in Britain, although it had been a 7-episode TV mini-series two years earlier. That movie was set in 1905 and looked at the lives of three children and their mother who to escape hard times in middle-class London after the disappearance of their father, went to a cottage in the countryside close to a secondary railway line.
This reprise/reworking is set in 1944 during WW2 when 1.5 million people, including women but mostly children were evacuated from big cities to the countryside to avoid German bombing raids. In fact this happened at the beginning of the war, but after the Blitz had ended in May 1941 it’s possible some returned. In mid-1944 the Germans began the V1 flying bomb campaign in retaliation for the bombing of German cities, and then the more deadly and terrifying V2 rockets.
So three children go by train from Salford to a village named Oakworth (the name of the heritage railway shown is the 5-mile or 8-km Keighley and Worth Valley Railway from Keighley to Oxenhope) and are accommodated by an obliging woman and her mother.
The children do what children tend to do, apart from school, play games and get into mischief. While exploring a guard’s van (caboose) in the yard of the railway station, one day they discover a young American black soldier, Abe — the American military were present in big numbers in England by that stage in preparation for the invasion of Europe.
Abe, younger than the 18 he initially makes out, tells the children he’s on a secret mission but is actually a deserter as he’s had enough of mistreatment by American military police who don’t like blacks socialising with the white women in the town. When the children arrive they see white officers call blacks ‘boy’ rather than ‘soldier’. This was in fact the standard form of address by whites for younger blacks in the South, while older blacks were called ‘uncle.’ However, there was still segregation in the American Army at that time.
Unsurprisingly. the authorities come looking for Abe, but the children hide him. They manage to smuggle him on a train going to Liverpool where he can then try to become a stowaway back home; but is caught along with the oldest of the children. A sympathetic adult tells them about a black general who is coming through town on a military train, he should be of help, if the train can be stopped and they can speak to him.
The story could have worked with a white soldier, but undoubtedly incorporating Wokeism was seen by the script writers/producers as a better way to get funding from the powers that be.
Aside from possible inaccuracies with the American military, there are some definite other historic inaccuracies — blackout at night was still in force but we see windows with lights, a flashlight without slit masking, and no crisscross tape over any windows which was done in case a bomb blast caused flying shards of glass.
One notable aspect of the film is that Jenny Agutter, the then lithesome teenage actress who played one of the three children in the original movie returns as a grandmother in this — the 52 year gap in reprising the same character is apparently a record.
My main interest was in seeing the heritage railway depicted as it once was in real operation with its steam trains and in that regard made it worth watching, but other aspects were somewhat lackluster and unconvincing. Historic recreation is well and good but needs more than just that for it to work as an involving movie. The other problem was that the railway yard looked more like that of a preserved railway collecting discarded equipment than a real station yard of the era — those used to the look of Steam Incorporated in Paekakariki with more than a little junk visible will know what I mean.
So it’s worth seeing but not a contender as for greatness.
The Railway Children Return (95 minutes) opened in the U.S. yesterday but is almost at the end of its theatrical run in Waikanae..