Americans are terrified to talk about, or even acknowledge, Social Class.

Not so, the British.

Lionel Jeffries saw a hidden gold mine in Edith Nesbit’s 1906 children’s book, The Railway Children, and brought it to the screen in 1970, to invite kids to think about privilege, wealth, and community. And for an American kid like me, this drama was an emotional revelation.

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Figure 1: Gary Warren, Jenny Agutter, and Sally Thomsett as Peter, Bobbie and Phyllis: The Railway Children

The Railway Children chronicles the descent of the Waterbury family from privileged Edwardian bourgeois elites to a scrambling, but loving, team, too poor to heat their home. They do all this in a remarkably forgiving, generous, and communitarian context of Yorkshire, at the dawn of the 20th century, and at the edge of a train line. There’s no doubt about it, the family benefits from its visit to the forgotten working end of English life. This is an enormously warm and friendly parable about the strengths of the working class and the merits of a childhood rooted in independence and community, which together engender ethical responsibility. These upper middle class kids are cut loose in a world they don’t understand, learn a lot about their neighbors, and do really good things.

The plot is jumpy.

It starts with a compelling prologue that shows the life of early century children, specifically including Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Waterbury, her younger sister Phyllis, and youngest Peter (played flawlessly by Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett, and Gary Warren). Their drawing room Christmases and the wonders they would see of the modern world take center stage at the outset, from steam toy trains to electric light.

Then, disaster tears their wonderfully warm and generous father (Iain Cuthbertson) from them, as he is taken away mysteriously, for what we would later learn is an unjust charge of sedition. With the father gone, the family makes a fascinating descent, buffered by Mrs. Waterburty’s (Dinah Sheridan) diligence and the critical income the family receives from her writing imaginative stories for pay. From the comforts of landed urban living (including heated bath water, cutting-edge stereoscopic entertainment, and well-stocked family dinners) the three children and their mother come to live in the country, in an abandoned cottage – Three Chimneys – with limited heat, food, and medical care.

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Figure 2: The Yorkshire countryside is littered with characters, and chief among them is stationmaster Perks 

The rest of the film is dominated by a smaller meta-plot, attempting to reunite the children with their lost father , and a number of energetic minor plots. The children befriend the station master Perks (a spectacular Bernard Cribbins) and eventually provide him a birthday event; they rescue a lost Russian dissident migrant and reunite him with his family; they save a young man fallen in the train tunnel from horrific dismemberment; and they memorably place themselves in the path of a speeding steam train, waving the torn red fragments of petticoats, to save the train and all its passengers from a terrible collision. When ‘Bobbie’ is reunited with her father, amidst the steam of the train, and in spectacular slow motion, the circle is closed, and the film is complete, except for the most charming sequence of end credits I can recall in my life. This film is episodic, breezy, and exciting.

I cheered for the Railway Children when I saw them as a kid. I cheer for them now.

A Children’s Experience of the World

What makes all of this successful is the spectacular vision of the film and its insistence on telling the tale from the children’s point-of-view, in physical and emotional terms. Lionel Jeffries shows the world as seen and lived by children.

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Figure 3: A star of the film is the British steam train. Railway Children drew on a dwindling bit of rolling stock in commission of this drama, a film that acknowledges the awesomeness of technology

Jeffries’ career is a mystery to me and, after seeing this film for the first time in 40 years, I regret he has so few directing credits to his name. An actor of some reputation in 1960s England, he played a range of eccentrics and inventors, soldiers, and workers. Readers of this blog are likely to know him as Grandpa Potts from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and King Pellinore in Camelot (1967), but I’ll always remember him for his turn as Harry Tyler in the Colditz Story (1955) and as Cavor in 1964’s First Men in the Moon. Even so, for a man with 112 acting credits to his name, the five films he directed contain only one memorable classic. This is it.

What gives this film its magnetic impact is that Jeffries’ camera is mobile, positional, and staged to capture human experience and a child’s view of life. In opening moments, for example, the camera creeps around corners to show the children eavesdropping on the confusing adult world that separates them from their father. Later, the camera’s lens conveys the terrible horror of being trapped in a tunnel as a train streaks past. I think Alan Parker studied the Railway Children; the train sequences in Pink Floyd’s The Wall feels like an echo of Jeffries’ careful use of Mytholmes Tunnel, in West Yorkshire. Maybe all tunnels in England look the same, but the psychic topology is undeniable.

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Figure 4: Mytholmes Tunnel, near Haworth, West Yorkshire. The tunnel is a dragon’s maw, a fount of celebration, and a crypt of mystery for The Railway Children

Edwardian Free Range Children

And more than this, Jeffries captures an exciting landscape, and narrates a radical argument about childhood. While the soft-lit and romantic opening sequences show a childhood that is pleasant and loving, it is clearly also protected and over-safe. The balance of the film suggests a different way to raise children: set them loose! The three children essentially become feral. But their life of freedom only produces sociability and goodwill.

Gary Warren’s Peter steals coal the first chance he gets, and the moral question is sorted out by engagement with his sisters. Sally Thomsett’s Phyllis provides inventive ideas and problem-solving like painting makeshift signs to get the attention of train-riding elites. And “Bobbie” is allowed in her time at Three Chimneys to tear loose, examine the moral landscape of the village in which the children find themselves, and establish her own identity as a young adult. She works to honor the friends they have, to inventively protect her brother and sister, and to begin to think about her own future.

This last part, played incredibly compellingly by Jenny Agutter, holds the film’s center. My readers will probably better recall her only a few years as Jessica in Logan’s Run (1976) and Molly in the Eagle Has Landed (1976), but here she is the star, playing a model of independence and ethical gravity.

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Figure 5:Phyllis, Bobbie and Peter are respectable bourgeois subjects one moment….

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Figure 6: …And free-willed spirits doing the world good, the next

Indeed, through their unrestricted freedom, the three children interrogate the major theme of the film (beyond the effort to hold a family together in the absence of it patriarch, which they do pretty well since Mom is a professional writer): they collectively ask whether, how, and under what conditions, we are allowed to care for one another. The film is filled with scenes in which people go to outstanding lengths to help one another, and still a great many other in which they argue about the insult of charity. This theme returns again and again, as the characters try to help one another, but never violate the film’s fundamental message: it’s no shame to be working poor.

This strikes me as the starting point of any conversation about this film with my son. What is charity? What is mutual obligation? What do we owe working people we will never be able to repay? The Railway Children is a warm, rich, and accessible way to think about the problem of privilege, the necessity of community, and the tenuous nature of class comfort.

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Figure 7: The whole community celebrates a reunited family at the film’s close, as the fourth wall is broken forever, at least for this viewer.

My own reaction to the film: Very Good.

Chances Alexander will like this movie: Fair. Maybe Very Good if I read the book to him first, I’d think.