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The Iron Maiden (1962)


In this comedy, Michael Craig plays Jack Hopkins, an aircraft designer working for the aerospace company owned by Sir Giles Thompson (Cecil Parker). Sir Giles is trying to win a big order for his company's new supersonic jet airliner from American airline boss Paul Fisher (Alan Hale Jr.). To do this he needs to tempt him away from the products of a rival firm, Polygon, led by the aristocratic Lord Upshott (Roland Culver).

Fisher needs new planes for his airline, Trans Global, and wants to take a look at the rival offerings himself. He decides to make a holiday out of it by bringing his wife Miriam (Jeff Donnell - yes, it's a woman) and daughter Kathy (Anne Helm), so they can combine business with pleasure, and take in some of the sights of merry old England.

Hopkins isn't only an aircraft designer, he's also a steam enthusiast and he has his own vintage showman's traction engine, "The Iron Maiden", a hobby that tends to draw him away from his responsibilities at the aerospace firm where he's meant to be working.

When Paul Fisher and his family get lost on their way to London, they run into Hopkins and his vintage steam engine. The engine is blocking their way on a narrow lane, leading to a heated altercation. The two groups part company, but little do they realise that they'll soon be meeting each other again.


Jack Hopkins (Michael Craig) with his co-driver Fred (Sam Kydd)
Jack Hopkins (Michael Craig) with his co-driver Fred (Sam Kydd)

Hopkins is later instructed by his boss Sir Giles to outline the new plane to a potential American customer, and discovers that it's the same American he ran into on the road. To make things worse, he and Paul Fisher's daughter Kathy have taken an instant dislike to each other.

Meanwhile, rival company Polygon Aircraft have got off to a better start, with Upshott's polished assistant, Humphrey (John Standing), acting as the perfect host to the Americans. Can Hopkins make up ground or will there be more disasters? And, as they get to know one another better, will he and Kathy find that they don't hate each other quite so much after all?

The Iron Maiden is part of a peculiarly British comedy sub-genre that we might best describe as "Men Are Overgrown Boys Who Love Their Overgrown Toys". The originators of this genre are the 1953 classic car comedy Genevieve, about two couples taking part in the London to Brighton veteran car run, and the same year's Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt, about a group of villagers who take over a railway branch line to save it from closure, with the help of a 19th Century steam engine rescued from the local museum.

Oddly enough, John Gregson was the star of both of those films, as well as another of this type, the 1956 "a boy, a girl and a boat" comedy True as a Turtle. He is absent, though, from The Iron Maiden, where the leading role is played instead by Michael Craig. But the usual formula still holds true.

The leading man in these films is usually a solidly British chap, who probably wears tweed and smokes a pipe. He has the boyish enthusiasm of someone a decade younger and the fashion sense of someone a decade older. And while he may find women momentarily distracting, his true love is usually reserved for his beloved vintage car, boat, plane, steam train or, in the case of The Iron Maiden, traction engine.


Original poster for The Iron Maiden (1962)
Original poster for The Iron Maiden

The Iron Maiden was made by the director-producer team of Gerald Thomas and Peter Rogers, better known for making the long-running Carry On comedy series. There are also some other Carry On personnel involved, including their regular cinematographer Alan Hume, the composer Eric Rogers, and the actors Joan Sims and Jim Dale. Sims plays the wife of Craig's character's regular co-driver Fred (Sam Kydd), while Jim Dale is an employee trying to think up ever more unlikely names for the new jet aeroplane.

The screenwriters, however, are totally different. The screenplay was by Vivian A. Cox and Leslie Bricusse, and based on a story by Harold Brooke and Kay Bannerman. Vivian Cox was mostly a producer, but had co-written the 1960 naval comedy Watch Your Stern, which was also directed by The Iron Maiden's director Gerald Thomas. Bricusse is better known as a lyricist, but he wrote or co-wrote several films including Charley Moon (1956), Three Hats for Lisa (1965) and Bachelor of Hearts (1958), the latter produced by Cox.

Probably at least partly thanks to the different writers, the style and tone of The Iron Maiden are quite different even from contemporary Carry On films. It's a much more gentle style of comedy with more emphasis on plot and almost no innuendo, except of the very mildest kind between the husband and wife played by Sam Kydd and Joan Sims. Its most obvious antecedent is Genevieve, and it's sometimes described (not altogether inaccurately) as how an Ealing comedy might look if it was made by the Carry On team.

The finale takes place at the real steam traction engine rally held at Woburn in Bedfordshire, in the grounds of Woburn Abbey. The Abbey's owner, The Duke of Bedford, appears as himself, and I'm pleased to say that, regardless of his massive house and enormous wealth, he couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. Even when he only has to play himself.


Some of The Iron Maiden's rivals at the traction engine rally
Some of The Iron Maiden's rivals at the traction engine rally

Among the other engine drivers are butch female Judith Furse, a semi-familiar face in British comedy as a sort of sour, humourless version of Hattie Jacques, and Noel Purcell as Admiral Sir Digby Trevelyan. To add some extra plot complications, the film introduces a competitive rivalry between The Iron Maiden crew and Trevelyan's engine, the "Dreadnought". Dreadnought is painted in battleship grey and commanded by Trevelyan as if it was a warship, with the aid of a reluctant Reverend played by Brian Oulton. The crew of Dreadnought engage in some underhand sabotage to stop their rival appearing at the steam rally.

The film's storyline is pretty predictable. You know that The Iron Maiden will break down at some point, that there'll be a scene where someone gets covered in dirt or coal dust, and that things will go disastrously wrong at the worst possible moment for Craig's efforts to sell his plane to the Americans. And, of course, that Craig and Helm's dislike for each other is going to turn into something quite different over the course of the film.

But the predictability is probably all part of the appeal. It's the cinematic equivalent of a cup of tea and a nice sit down in a comfy chair. It's not remotely challenging, but no one wants or expects it to be. It's so mild and quaint that one of the characters even uses the word "thumping" as a substitute swear word and, presumably, we're meant to be thinking of a real swear word in its place, as surely no one is going to find that offensive, even in 1962.

The film draws the expected humour out of the Anglo-American culture clash, as well as the contrast and rivalry between the truculent, independently-minded Hopkins and his business rival, the snooty and unflappable Humphrey. Hopkins is interested only in engineering, not selling, and is far from a practised schmoozer, or even a very reliable employee. But, although it starts off looking like a liability, The Iron Maiden is able to help him out. While Paul Fisher initially looks upon the steam engine with disdain, he quickly becomes enthusiastic as he and Craig bond over The Iron Maiden on the run out to the steam fair.


Cecil Parker sitting at a desk with Jim Dale standing alongside
Sir Giles Thompson (Cecil Parker) and his assistant Bill (Jim Dale)

The Iron Maiden is very much a 1950s film, its 1962 release surely just an accident of timing. It belongs to what I suppose we should call "the long 1950s" and almost certainly couldn't have been made much more than a year or two later.

The film does juggle a surprisingly interesting (at least in retrospect) set of elements, reflecting some of the preoccupations of Britain in the 1950s and early '60s, even if this was almost certainly accidental. On the one hand the film looks to the future, and Britain's hopes of utilising what 1960s Prime Minister Harold Wilson called the "white heat" of technology. That modern technology is encapsulated by the gleaming new jet airliners the rival companies are making. Underpinning this too is the post-war economic philosophy of "export or die", represented by the dollars from American export orders that the British companies are so eager to win.

The new airliner in the film was played by a Handley Page Victor, one of Britain's 'V' Bomber force of the 1950s and '60s. These planes were often used in British film and TV in this period to represent high-tech new aircraft, because they looked so sleek and futuristic, although in the Victor's case the lack of side windows would seem like a problem for a plane that's meant to be a passenger airliner. The other two 'V' bombers were the Vickers Valiant and the Avro Vulcan. The Valiant played an advanced new jet plane in the 1965 spy spoof The Liquidator, while the Vulcan was cast as the hijacked nuclear bomber in the same year's Bond film Thunderball.

But for Craig's character the new airliner, and the modern world that it represents, are strictly business. As is often the case in Britain, real affection is reserved for the past, in Hopkins's case in the form of The Iron Maiden.

In the post-war years, many historic buildings, streets and town centres in Britain had been swept away to make way for concrete tower blocks and ring roads, but there was also a growing rearguard action focused on preservation. The Iron Maiden takes this one step further, focusing on what was probably quite an unfashionable part of the nation's past, one that at that time was mostly of interest to engineers and eccentrics.

In a slightly unexpected way then, this old-fashioned (even in 1962) and partly backward-looking film was ahead of its time, before there was a widespread acceptance of the value of preserving industrial history. And the film suggests that the nostalgic old technology of steam is one that has the power to bring people together, as with Jack Hopkins and Paul Fisher, who bond during their shared adventure on the road with the old traction engine.


Michael Craig and Alan Hale Jr.driving a traction engine
Jack Hopkins (Michael Craig) and Paul Fisher (Alan Hale Jr.) on their way to the steam rally

As a reasonably serious car nerd, I also appreciated the fact that Craig's character drives an Alvis, quite different from contemporaries like the flashy Jaguar E-Type or the swanky MGA, even if the car in the film is the more glamorous convertible version. A solid, well made, well-engineered, if slightly old-fashioned car, it seems like just the kind of car an engineer with one foot in the past might choose. The other characters conform to type, with the well-heeled Humphrey turning up to chauffeur the visitors around in (what else?) a Rolls-Royce, while the Americans arrive with their own massive Cadillac.

It's also significant that the main characters, other than Craig's aircraft designer, are Americans. Probably not so much because the producer had hopes of attracting an American audience, but because it was increasingly American finance and custom that British industry wanted to attract. The US was still a big market for British goods, especially cars, but was also providing income through increased tourism. This is reflected in the film in the British company's eagerness to attract the order for new airliners from a big-paying American customer. But it's also reflected in the way that the American characters treat England as a spot, not just for business, but for tourism as well, holidays in Europe being something increasingly within the reach of affluent Americans in the 1950s and early '60s.

And The Iron Maiden doesn't really disappoint on that score, presenting a nostalgic portrait of England as a place of quaint villages, cosy pubs, village fetes and country houses, where the sun is always shining (except when the plot demands), and where chaps drive open top cars and live in idyllic and suspiciously large country cottages. Much of the location filming took place in and around Buckinghamshire, not too far from Peter Rogers's usual studio base at Pinewood Studios.

It's tempting to see a parallel here with the film itself and its importing of American actors, because trying to attract American dollars was something that British film producers, maybe even Peter Rogers, knew all about. Although if he was hoping that using American actors and characters was going to attract an American audience for The Iron Maiden, then I think he was likely to be disappointed.


The Iron Maiden and Dreadnought traction engines in The Iron Maiden film
The Iron Maiden takes on Dreadnought at the steam rally

The film's depiction of gender relations is surprisingly interesting. In one scene, the errant Kathy takes charge of The Iron Maiden to move it off of the road where it's in her way. But she loses control of it and crashes it into a barn. In response, the fuming Hopkins takes hold of Kathy, bends her over his knee and gives her a sound spanking. Thus, hopefully, the age-old problem of women going crazy and driving traction engines into farm buildings can be solved.

The spanking scene means that this once harmless comedy now has a slight, and wholly unexpected, frisson of transgression. A man putting a grown woman over his knee and spanking her is, of course, a highly sexual act. I'm pretty sure the film is aware of this, but it covers itself by portraying it as an action of almost paternal concern. It's interesting to speculate how the female audience in 1962 would have reacted to this scene, or how the makers hoped they would react. Were the women in the audience expected to be riled by Craig and think he was an arrogant chauvinist pig? Or to see him as sexy and masterful, and secretly hope that he might treat them in the same way?

When Kathy complains to her father about her treatment by Hopkins, he is all set to meet him with fisticuffs. But when the two men meet again, Fisher gets distracted by that lovely old steam engine, and instead of fighting over the girl, the two men bond over The Iron Maiden. When Hopkins explains about his spanking Kathy, he points out to her father that his reaction was born of concern for her safety, rather than out of spite. When Fisher reflects on it, he realises that Hopkins was probably in the right and that Kathy probably did need a good spanking. He had obviously been neglecting his fatherly duties. In this slightly peculiar way, Hopkins shows that he is fit to be Kathy's husband and to take over the important role of caring for her, protecting her and given her a good spank on the bottom when she needs it. It's slightly tempting to see the title as referring not only to the steam engine, but to Kathy as well, as a feisty woman who needs to be tamed. But I may be reading too much into that.

The Iron Maiden is a romantic comedy, so it's presumably intended to be enjoyed by both sexes. The men in the audience have cool jet planes and charming old steam engines to keep them interested. They also have Craig's character to empathise with, with his paternalistic chauvinism and manly hobbies. But what do the women get? Presumably they're intended to find Craig attractive, and I suppose that might work. He's young, but old enough to be taken seriously, fairly good looking, and dominant but not overbearing. But he lacks the charm of, say, Kenneth More, who could sell this idea much better, or maybe even John Gregson, and I think this is one romantic comedy likely to have much more appeal to men than women.

As for Kathy, well she's obviously getting a bad deal if she intends to marry Jack Hopkins. He'll be devoting most of his spare time to that traction engine, her weekends will be spent at steam rallies and she'll probably have to spend her honeymoon polishing its boiler or something.


Anne Helm and Michael Craig in The Iron Maiden
Kathy (Anne Helm) and Jack Hopkins (Michael Craig) after an eventful day

The film's advertising in the US emphasised the spanking scene and it was re-titled "The Swingin' Maiden", perhaps because someone at distributor Columbia Pictures was worried that a film called The Iron Maiden might be mistaken for a horror movie. Or maybe it was a slightly desperate attempt to make it sound like it was cool and hip and not a film about boring old traction engines.

The Iron Maiden is, according to the film, a John Fowler & Co. steam engine c. 1920, and the Dreadnought a 1912 Burrells. For the scenes where The Iron Maiden is damaged, or where it is driven into a ditch, a wooden replica, dubbed "The Plywood Maiden" by the crew, was created. So don't worry, no traction engines were harmed in the making of this film. The replica version had a small boiler installed so that it could make steam and it's difficult, if not impossible, to tell the real engine from the fake one. Reassuringly, The Iron Maiden itself still exists. The engine was originally called "Kitchener", but it's now known officially as The Iron Maiden, in recognition of its 98 minutes of fame.

I long ago realised that, if it was only possible, I'd like to live in a 1950s or early '60s British comedy film. The sun always seems to be shining, except when the plot requires otherwise, there are colourful characters, charming old cars, idyllic villages, the roads aren't clogged with traffic, and everyone seems so good natured.

As a result, I'm less resistant to the admittedly slight charms of The Iron Maiden than most. It sure ain't no Genevieve. In fact, it's a film that keeps you waiting with a half smile ready in anticipation of laughs that mostly don't come. For that reason, it's a film that's mainly of interest to completists and British comedy aficionados. But as a film for a lazy Sunday afternoon, it does have some appeal, and it's all so agreeable that it's hard to dislike. And for traction engine fans, it must be cinematic nirvana.


The Iron Maiden

Year: 1962
Genre: Comedy
Country: UK
Director: Gerald Thomas

Cast Michael Craig (Jack Hopkins), Anne Helm (Kathy Fisher), Jeff Donnell (Miriam Fisher), Alan Hale Jr. (Paul Fisher), Noel Purcell (Admiral Sir Digby Trevelyan), Cecil Parker (Sir Giles Thompson), Roland Culver (Lord Upshott), Joan Sims (Nellie Carter), John Standing (Humphrey Gore-Brown), Brian Oulton (The Vicar), Sam Kydd (Fred Carter), Judith Furse (Mrs Webb), Richard Thorp (Harry Markham), Jim Dale (Bill), George Woodbridge (Mr Ludge), Ian Wilson (Sidney Webb), Brian Rawlinson (Albert - Village policeman), Douglas Ives (Charlie), Michael Nightingale (Senior rally steward), Cyril Chamberlain (Mrs Webb's teammate), Peter Jesson ('Wrong' Rolls-Royce owner), Anton Rodgers (Concierge), Tom Gill (Rally steward), The Duke of Bedford (as himself)

Screenplay Vivian Cox, Leslie Bricusse, story Harold Brooke, Kay Bannerman  Producer Peter Rogers  Cinematography Alan Hume  Editor Archie Ludski  Art director Carmen Dillon  Music Eric Rogers

Running time 98 mins  Colour Eastmancolor
Production company G. H. W. Productions / Peter Rogers  Distributors Anglo-Amalgamated (UK), Columbia Pictures (US)


This post is part of the sixth annual Rule Britannia Film Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts






Comments

  1. I can't believe it! I can't believe there is a "Men Are Overgrown Boys Who Love Their Overgrown Toys" movie that I haven't seen, let alone even heard of. And I'm a gal who will go a long way to see either Jeff Donnell or Roland Culver!

    PS: "The Swinging Maiden" - Ha!?!

    Enjoyed this article very much. Looks like just my comfortable cup of tea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you'll like it, so I hope you get to see it.

      I have to admit, Jeff Donnell did have me confused for a bit. I kept looking at the cast list trying to work out who was playing the mother and then I realised, oh, Jeff is a woman ...!

      Delete
  2. Anonymous05 August

    JEFF DONNELL was in the second and third GIDGET movies in the 60s. She played the mother. GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN with perky redhead DEBORAH WALLEY and CINDY CAROL played the part in GIDGET GOES TO ROME. Classic TV Fan

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have never seen The Iron Maiden, but I always have wanted to and your blog post has made me want to see it even more! I love the "Men Are Overgrown Boys Who Love Their Overgrown Toys" genre of British film (indeed, I wrote about Genevieve this year), so I know I would probably enjoy The Iron Maiden. And I always did like Michael Craig, whether as a leading man or a supporting player. Thank you for taking part in the blogathon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you like Genevieve then I think you'll probably like this one too, although it does suffer a bit from the comparison.

      Delete
  4. I haven't even heard of this film but then I have never even seen a Carry On film though I've heard about them. I always find films interesting which seem to be out of touch with the zeitgeist of their own time and are already old-fashioned on the day they come out. It doesn't really bother me as nostalgia is one of the reasons we watch old movies. I guess we can add Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Doctor Dolittle and Midnight Lace to this class.

    I'm not really taking the bait about the spanking scene. :) I'm not sure if Craig or Kenneth More could sell the idea but I can think of some others if I wrack my brain.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha ha, let's not go there!

      The idea of films a bit out of their time is interesting to me too. It's probably partly that making a film is such a big undertaking that it can take years to get off the ground, and copying an earlier success or following a popular trend makes sense. But because of the time lapse a film can often be left stranded in a genre that not enough people want anymore. It's especially difficult when fashions are changing quickly as in the 1960s.

      I wonder if a Carry On film is something you really ought to see or not. I hesitate to recommend it, especially as there are so many much better British comedies. But one probably wouldn't hurt you, as long as it's not made after about 1970. It depends on how you feel about lowbrow humour and double entendres ...

      Delete
    2. I'm sure I could deal with a Carry On film. :) I've watched a good bit of Benny Hill and Hill most certainly causes the snowflakes to melt nowadays.

      Delete
    3. Ah, well in that case you probably know what to expect. Pick one from the mid-to-late 1960s when Talbot Rothwell was in his punning prime. The good news is, if you like one, then there are a couple of dozen more just the same!

      Delete
  5. Anonymous06 August

    Do you answer every comment? I posted about JEFF DONNELL being in two GIDGET movies. I also read that she played a housekeeper on GENERAL HOSPITAL. Classic TV Fan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wasn't sure if I could add much to that comment, but I'll take your word for it that she was in those movies.

      Delete

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