Monday, 23 May 2016
THE FINISHING LINE (1977)
In 1977 British Transport Films felt they needed a stark public information film warning of the dangers to children of playing on railway lines. Unlike Apaches, with its focus on rural-centric farming perils, this was a major national concern since almost everywhere in Britain lies within reach of a working rail line (even after the country received a Dr Beeching’s powder of network cuts).
Director John Krish together with co-writer Michael Gilmour came up with a powerful and clever way to appeal to children without tiresome preaching. They staged the type of terrible tragedies that could happen within a surreal fantasy story dreamed up by a school-age skin-head fantasist on a railway bridge. In his head, he hears the stern voice of his headmaster, reminiscent of Arthur Lowe, addressing the school on the subject of railway risks. “The railway is not the GAMES FIELD!” he barks. The boy daydreams of what it would be like if it could be, triggering an elaborate Sports Day set-up at the track-side, complete with tents, the entire school turning out and equipped with St John’s Ambulance staff and the ominous sight of stretchers being laid out.
Over the next 20 minutes, a teacher over the tannoy announces a series of four events each based upon a prankish activity that kids carry out life-threateningly on railway lines. The first is the Fence-Breaking event, which consists of the pupils pouring down the embankment and crossing to the other side. They are divided for the day into competitive colour-coded teams and score points accordingly based on their success. Sadly, one boy comes a cropper and knocks himself out on the line. He is run over by an oncoming train. His tragedy, like all the deaths suffered in the film, is conveyed with sensitivity and responsibility. We never see an impact, Krish focuses instead on the aftermath whose repercussions linger far worse.
The next event is Stone-Throwing, staged with alarmingly effective direction by having the kids hurl the stones with ferociously aggressive facial expressions rather than an attitude of innocent fun. The Conductor stops the train, and in lieu of telling off the children, continues the surreal angle by marking the kids’ accuracy in blinding a blood-stained driver and passenger: “A direct hit. Six points!”
Last Across is the third round in which all four teams, two on each side, must cross the track and each other to claim victory with only three seconds to avoid a 50-mile-an-hour train. No prises for guessing the outcome here. Inevitably they are mown down and judicious editing cuts to their mangled bodies littering the line.
The final obstacle is the most lethal of all - the Great Tunnel Walk with its three miles of dank total darkness to negotiate. This is well-mounted, featuring what looks like an entire school of kids entering in a long queue. (All were actually recruited from local schools in the Home Counties). One by one a handful stagger out in a soot-smudged and blood-stained daze to be ticked off by a teacher’s register. The less lucky ones are carried out by the ambulance team and nurses. This prompts the film’s most impressive sequence as the bodies of the dead are laid out on the track as if signalling the fallen in battle. The brass band’s Last Post eulogy movingly underscores the aftermath of fictitious war.
Returning to the boy lazing on the bridge, we are left to hear the headmaster’s closing statement loaded with post-traumatic double meaning: “If any of you think that playing on the railway is a good idea, perhaps he or she would care to stand up…”
In delivering its message via dark humour, The Finishing Line is a public information film definitely on the right track. It works in the same vein as Apaches, mining anxieties and signposting its vital educational concerns without patronising its audience – whilst succeeding as an excellent stand-alone short film appreciable by viewers of any age.