A few months ago, a friend recommended ‘The Flying Scotsman’ a 2006 British film based on the life and career of Scottish cycling legend and hero, Graeme Obree. The film stars Jonny Lee Miller as Obree, Laura Fraser, Billy Boyd and Brian Cox. Now this ain’t Academy Award Caliber but what we’ve seen is something that’s pleasantly surprising. Take a look at the trailer below:
The film starts with Graeme Obree (Miller) cycling into a wood preparing to hang himself. There is then a flashback to Obree’s childhood, where he was routinely bullied, events which leave severe psychological scars. One day Obree is given a bicycle and we see Obree evading the bullies on his bike.
The adult Obree is married with a child and while competing in local races runs a failing cycle shop and having to supplement his income as a courier. An ex-minister turned boatyard owner Baxter (Cox) befriends Obree, which results in Obree coming up with a daring idea – he’s going to try and beat the hour record.
This is unlikely as Obree has neither the funding nor the machine required to take on such a record. Obree is determined and constructs “Old Faithful”, a revolutionary bicycle, designed by Obree for maximum efficiency, made up from scrap metal, and components from a washing machine. With help from his friend Malky McGovern (Boyd), who becomes his manager, and against all odds, Obree makes an attempt on the world record in Norway and though he fails initially, he tries again the following morning and actually succeeds in beating it. However, his initial victory is short-lived, when his record is broken by Chris Boardman a week later, and the cycling sports authorities then rewrite the rules to try and make it impossible for Obree to win using his more experimental methods.
It is shown the night Obree breaks the record he is prone to crippling bouts of depression, which is exacerbated when Boardman breaks the record and he meets up with one of his childhood bullies. After winning the Individual Pursuit World Championship in 1993, the authorities change the rules just as Obree tries to defend his title and he crashes after being unable to adapt a new riding position. This leads his depression to spiral out of control to the point where he attempts suicide in the woods shown at the start of the film. However, the rope snaps and with the help of his wife Anne (Fraser) and Baxter, Obree starts to receive help for his condition.
It is then shown Obree comes back and regains his world title. (from Wikipedia)
The Flying Scotsman is probably the only feature length film about track cycling and that alone makes this film special. Of course, as with autobiographical films, I believe a lot of the parts have been fictionalized to make the story a bit livelier. But I appreciate the filmmakers efforts to portray Graeme Obree as a flawed hero. Often times, his character annoys and you suddenly feel not rooting for him. I don’t know if the filmmakers intended this but I believe this was how some in the cycling community received Graeme Obree based on my humble research.
I didn’t have high expectations for this film so I was pleasantly surprised by how good it actually is. But good here is rather relative. This ain’t a masterpiece but what we have here is a genuinely touching account of someone going against the odds. If you’re a track cycling enthusiast and entered this film expecting a detailed focus on the track cycling sport, you will be disappointed. This is all about Graeme Obree, his life and his struggles.
So what about the sport? How is it portrayed in this film? No, they don’t really explain the mechanics, but they portrayed it really well. Actually, the sport here is often seen as the villain. The WCF, and cycling authorities are portrayed here as being evil and are the main antagonists of the movie. I’m not sure how true the events were, but clearly Graeme Obree acted disrespectfully towards the officials. In my experience, the officials, those guys in the business suits hold a very commanding presence in the velodrome. Every time they appear the team will often fall silent, but that’s not to say these people are anti-social or counter productive, in fact they are actually very friendly and supportive to the athletes. In the film it was shown that the officials tried their very best to change or augment the rules so as to prevent Obree’s bike to be used in the velodrome with somewhat inconsistent results. Sound familiar? Just earlier this year, the UCI banned track bikes from UK, Germany, and Australia if these bikes were not marketed or not available for public consumption. There’s been an endless debate toward that and the issue has been treated negatively. It seems cycling authorities love to meddle with the rules as they have before. Check out that story HERE.
What about the technical aspects of the film? They did a pretty good job! There’s some amazing cinematography here, and the single-take scenes in the velodrome were brilliant. The music did its job and the acting? It was quite ok, and JML’s acting was convincing enough, heck, even his cycling was amazing for an actor! Billy Boyd also managed to portray his role well as well as Laura Fraser and Brian Cox. Unfortunately though, the acting is very inconsistent and quite cheesy at times. Still, a pretty commendable effort for the actors. The velodrome scenes were well set up, and the set props were good. Oh yes, there’s tons of lycra here, but unfortunately JML doesn’t look so good in that skinsuit. But if you went into this film expecting a lycra fest, you’ll be disappointed too. There aren’t too many actors in this film with good bodies so the lycra opportunity goes to waste. If you want to see lycra clad actors in a film, better watch a superhero movie. Anyway, the filmmakers managed to replicate the old skinsuits, and track bikes and Graeme Obree himself supervised the reproduction of his track bike.
So in conclusion, we recommend this movie to all cyclists out there most especially to the track cyclists. This is a very personal, emotional, and heartwarming account of a track cyclist, struggling against the authorities and his own depression.