Transport in Welsh film

Photograph of a film camera and a 1950s car

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Ever since the Lumiere Bros. made The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, shown in the first successful commercial projected cinema show in Paris in December, 1895, locomotives belching steam and epitomising speed and power have fascinated audiences in cinemas.

Even if stories of audiences fleeing from approaching trains on screen may be apocryphal, the impression made on fairground or music hall audiences as screen locos cut through space and time can scarcely be comprehended today.

This new media and locos, for instance, both opened up new, exciting vistas for those with unprecedented leisure opportunities as day train, car and boat trips gradually became a feature of life from the late 19th century. Cinema spectators loved the sensation of being whisked between locations on screen locomotives in particular - and the phantom train ride film (with the camera aboard the loco or a flat truck in front of the loco) became a hugely popular sub-genre of movie after the impact of the first such film, Haverstraw Tunnel (1897).

The first Welsh-based filmmaker, Arthur Cheetham of Rhyl, reputedly lost little time catering to the audience appeal, shooting, in 1898, the Arrival of a train at Llanrwst and an Irish Mail Train going through Rhyl Station, but both these films are now thought lost.

Yet Wales was to make a spectacular, enduring contribution to film history the same year when Cheetham's efforts were overshadowed by the British Biograph company's Phantom Train Ride to Conway Castle - astonishingly enough a 68mm or 70mm film - almost twice the normal size of the regular modern screen image - and handcoloured in surviving versions.

Featuring evocative panoramic shots of the castle after a journey through tunnels, this short film was so popular in its day that it returned to London's Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, several times in 1898 and 1899 by popular demand, and proved a critical sensation in America.

The film was supervised, and may have been shot, in February 1898, by no less a luminary than William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, the man who invented the Kinetoscope (peepshow single-viewer) machine for Edison and also his camera, The Kinetograph.

Biograph's 1898 film of an express loco in the Menai Straits is scarcely less eye-catching today and the precise timing of shots has been praised by recent American silent cinema historians.

Apart from the Phantom train ride film, the most startling of early Welsh material featuring trains is Charles Urban's North Wales, England: Land of Castles and Waterfalls (1907). The film darts around various scenic locations, including the quarry areas and one shot captures three locos under full steam under and around castle walls. This surviving film is one of the most beautiful of silent actuality movies.

Locomotives with their often-mournful whistles and hoots were to be used, increasingly, for their metaphorical and symbolic significance in cinema, or as simple links denoting the passage of time. The locos were often caught in silhouette in nocturnal shots, with the baleful whistle used to convey loneliness or a longing to be elsewhere.

Trains have been used eloquently in Westerns as devices to suggest the opening up of America or the frontier, and conversely the shrinking of freedom for the cattlemen and range riders. Expresses also became the site of innumerable thrillers, epitomised by Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938).

Scarcely less exciting than loco films for early audiences seem to have been the Turn out of the local Fire Brigade films, following pioneering US examples from Edwin S Porter of the Edison company - the spectacle of horses (initially) drawing engines and galloping pell-mell around corners to reach hapless victims and pull off 11th hour rescues, had immense appeal.

The first Welsh examples of such actuality films of local exercises or restaged events appear to be the Turn Out of the Cardiff Fire Brigade films of 1901 and 1905, but the only known survivor of such a film in Wales is a Cardiff turn out from the 1920s.

Arthur Cheetham had completed his own - still extant - 1898 transport short with the impressive surviving Mailboat Munster at Holyhead, catching detailed medium close-up low angle, views of the deck and crew. In 1907 he pulled off a bolder venture-actually persuading local fire brigades to restage their response to a fierce blaze, which gutted much of the fashionable Queen's Hotel, Rhyl. He even added his own colour to the flames for good measure. Cheetham was later the first Welsh pioneer to take films of air flight pre-World War One.

His filmmaking successors from Rhyl, the Shannon Bros, took footage of Rhyl Flying Week c.1919-20, but undoubtedly the most important air film in Wales from early days is the footage of American Amelia Earhart landing at Burry Port after the first Transatlantic flight by a woman in 1928.

A rich haul of films from pioneers Mitchell and Kenyon from Blackburn, surfacing in the 1990s, proved fruitful for Wales in filling obvious gaps in extant transport footage. It yielded short but invaluable films of the Liverpool and North Wales Steamship company vessels on trips between Liverpool and Holyhead and Llandudno. The material strongly featured the pride of the LNW co fleet - the St.Tudno and the St. Elvies.

One of these films provided an unexpected bonus for historians. A trip to North Wales on the SS St Elvies (1902) is now thought to contain the first animated titles in British movies. It offers tantalising views of the north Wales landscapes and conveys the excitement of crowds revelling in opportunities opened up during the holiday season by cheap travel.

The finest trade docks and shipping footage to surface from Wales in silent cinemas was Great Western Ports (1929), a British Transport documentary providing a fascinating insight into the work of the docks at Cardiff, Newport, Swansea, Barry and Penarth.

In 1925/26 Francis Worsley, the producer of the hugely successful hit World War 11 radio review show ITMA (It's That Man Again), made the shipping film Trawling out of Swansea on the Tenby Castle, which preceded John Grierson's highly influential documentary Drifters (1929).

The most memorable travel footage from Wales at the end of the silent era was undoubtedly captured by Claude Friese-Greene (son of the great cinema pioneer William Friese Greene), travelling Britain by car in 1925/26 for his travelogue series The Open Road, made in an experimental two-colour process. Much of the surviving material was shown on television in recent years, and four of the 26 reels were shot on Welsh locations.

At the cusp of the talkie era, there was still excitement to be had, from the thrill of speed and the tragedies of would- be record breakers.

In 1929 Gaumont Graphic and other newsreels took the most dramatic footage of such events, with film of Parry Thomas meeting his death in his attempt on the land speed record at Pendine Sands. The continued obsession of pioneers chasing record times was communicated by Anthony Hopkins' performance in the 1988 BBC drama Across The Lake as Malcolm Campbell in the months prior to his fatal attempt on the world water speed record at Lake Coniston in 1967.


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