Great (Isambard Kingdom Brunel) (1975) - IMDb



To avoid reading a biography, I was looking for a biopic about Isambard Kingdom Brunel (IKB), the second greatest Briton of all time. Bridge engineer, Railway director, Shipbuilder, and so on, he truly encapsulated the Victorian era. I had never seen a biopic, but figured the British must have done something. Indeed they did:

IMDB delivers this: Great (Isambard Kingdom Brunel) (1975): "An animated film about the British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who spearheaded numerous engineering marvels of the early 19th century - including the Thames Tunnel, the Great Western Railway, and the Great Eastern steamship (for 40 years the world's largest steamship). Various styles of animation are used to depict events in his colorful life. "

So going to the usual places, I found a copy of this and watched it this past weekend, twice. The description does not do justice. Imagine Terry Gilliam meets R. Crumb, with some Ralph Bakshi and Schoolhouse Rock thrown in.

The cartoon is offensive (well, if you are a human being, it is offensive, also if you are among certain non-human species). It is bizarre (you just don't get to see too much animated Queen Victoria soft-core in the US, maybe this is more common in Britain). It is mostly about Brunel, but it is also telling of the state of the UK in the early 1970s. Something was clearly wrong that this was green-lighted. I can imagine the conversation.

Producer: We are going to make an animated history of the Great Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Network: Sounds great, we need more educational programming.

Producer: Um, Thanks, the budget will be 100,000 pounds.

Network: See our accountants.

And then many drugs were consumed no one supervised production. I don't know when or if this aired, one imagines Saturday at 11 pm. One hopes not Saturday at 11 am. And because of this, no one else has since produced a Brunel biopic.

While generally historically accurate in the bits you would expect to be accurate, and pointing out stories I had not heard (the difficulty of launch for the Great Eastern, and the boiler explosion) (for lack of reading one more biography), it misses some of the best Brunel stories, like how he swallowed a coin in a failed magic trick, or how he nearly drowned in the Thames Tunnel. Still if you like animation, cheesy music (including an love song to the Great Western Railway), and can overlook what was barely acceptable racism in 1970s England, this is an interesting piece, telling you as much about the pre-punk, pre-Thatcher ethic as the Victorians.

For the record, IMDB records there were two other Brunel biopics, as well as some other documentary mentions, plus the very strange 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, where he was portrayed by Kenneth Brannaugh.

  • ITV Play of the Week" - Engineer Extraordinary (1959) TV episode, Played by Peter Wyngarde
  • The Romance of a Railway: The History of Achievement (1935) Played by Carl Harbord

I have not seen these.


Okay, fine... who was the greatest Briton of all time?

(I was eager awaiting Isambard's appearance in Transportation Trivia; I suppose he is not trivial enough?)

Oh! I see the list linked from the Wikipedia page. Bummer that Diana beat out Darwin; I suppose she is more fit.

David Levinson

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This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on September 17, 2012 9:23 AM.

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