Once a Jolly Swagman (1949)

Once a Jolly Swagman (AKA “Maniacs on Wheels”)once a jolly poster
Directed by Jack Lee
Written by William Rose and Jack Lee from a novel by Montagu Slater
Wessex Films Productions
First viewing/Amazon Prime


“On my tombstone they will carve, “IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME.” ― Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century

This story of a motorcycle speedway racer in Britain has a lot in common with contemporary American boxing films.  The young Dirk Bogarde was the best thing about the film for me.

In the 1930’s, Bill Fox (Bogarde) is a working-class factory worker with a love for speed and motorbikes.  He spends his free time hanging around the speedway watching his Australian friend and star racer Lag Gibbon.  He starts dating Lag’s sweet sister Pat (Renee Asherson).

Bill is eventually given a chance to ride and steadily progresses up the rankings.  His break-though happens at a race in which Lag is severely injured in a crash.  He expresses his regret but then neglects his friend while he is in the hospital.  Pat cannot forgive him.

jolly swagman

Bill becomes a star and acquires a society girlfriend.  She is too headstrong for him, though, and he walks out.  After finally visiting Lag, he eventually reconciles with Pat and they marry.  Bill tries advocating for the rights of the riders vis-a-vis the management, especially with regard to race injuries.  For his pains, he is blackballed from the track.  He decides to go to America to race.  Pat, who hates speedracing and worries constantly about Bill, puts her foot down.  They split up but Hitler’s invasion of Poland precludes Bill’s relocation to the U.S.

We follow the separate lives of Bill and Pat during the war and Bill’s struggles to reestablish himself afterwards.

once a jolly 2

This is one of those corruption of an honest bloke by success stories that were so popular during this period.  It started out slow for me and improved toward the end as the story focused more on Bill’s inner turmoil.

As far as I can tell, the British title was there more or less as an excuse for the playing of “Waltzing Matilda” in the score throughout.  It makes more sense than the American title, Maniacs on Wheels, however!


4 thoughts on “Once a Jolly Swagman (1949)

    • Thanks, Laurie. Fascinating stuff. For some reason, I always get the chills when I hear “Waltzing Matilda”. I always picture a lonely man dreaming of waltzing with his love Matilda though I know that’s not what the song is about. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that I have been to Australia many times. I lived in Papua New Guinea for three years and my husband and I took many of our vacations and several short breaks there. We always enjoyed the country and the people. Where do you live?

      • I’m glad you enjoyed the link.

        Live just a hop skip and a looooong step down from PNG in Brisbane.

        Interesting place PNG with a very colourful history. Not sure that I’d like to be living there now though. I visited many moons ago on a walking holiday to trek the Kokoda Trail. I needed to go back to work to recover from the holiday!

        • I lived in PNG from 1994-97 and it was like being in jail even then. Hence all the trips to Australia. You can’t imagine what pleasure it is just to walk freely around Cairns. Brisbane was even better! Can’t disagree that PNG is a beautiful and fascinating but spoiled for me by the crime threat.

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