Alfred Hitchcock made The Lady Vanishes at a time when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was trying to avoid war with Germany. Chamberlain’s efforts are now derisively referred to as appeasement, which is often alluded to when someone counsels peace and diplomacy rather than war. Although Hitchcock was always more interested in entertaining us than anything else, this movie comes across as a cautionary tale, warning England of the dangers of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy.
The movie begins in the fictitious, Germanic-sounding country of Bandrika, which is ruled by a dictator. A bunch of people trying to get back England by train are forced to stay in a hotel on account of an avalanche. Eventually, the snow is removed and they get on the train. As the trip progresses, Iris (Margaret Lockwood) notices that Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) has disappeared from the train.
Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), a couple of passengers who did see Miss Froy on the train, pretend not to have seen her, because they figure nothing really bad could have happened to her, and they do not want the train delayed, lest it cause them to miss the cricket match they hope to see when they get back to England. From time to time, we see them reading about that cricket match on the back pages of the newspaper, while the serious political news on the front page is ignored. They represent the dangerous complacency of the British people.
All the foreigners on that train act suspicious and untrustworthy, and all seem to be part of a conspiracy to deny the existence of Miss Froy and pass off another woman as a substitute. As the foreigners seem to be either Germanic or Italian, they represent the followers of Hitler and Mussolini, whom the movie is saying cannot be trusted.
But as the danger becomes undeniable, the British passengers all start pulling together, even the spy posing as a nun, since she is of British origin. Thus the movie is optimistically saying that once the British people are shaken from their complacency, they will rally together and defeat the foreign aggressors.
The one exception is Todhunter (Cecil Parker). Though he is British, yet he wants to surrender to the soldiers trying to get control of the train. He is derided as being a pacifist and compared to Christians who got thrown to the lions. When he insists on surrendering on his own, getting off the train waving a white handkerchief, he is contemptuously shot, and falls to the ground muttering words of bewildered protest. So much for pacifism.
When we first meet Miss Froy, obviously an old maid, she comes across as whimsical and sentimental, boring Charters and Caldicott with her talk about the beautiful country. As she parts from them, she remarks that we should not judge a country by its politics, noting that the English are quite honest by nature, implying that the British government sometimes is not (and that means the government presided over by Neville Chamberlain, of course). The implication is that the basically good people of a country can be betrayed by their government, but that the goodness of ordinary folk will ultimately prevail. Because Miss Froy is the last person you would expect to be a spy, her example implies that the rest of us have no excuse for not doing our part. If a little old lady can risk her life in the fight against evil enemies, dodging bullets as she runs across the countryside of a hostile nation, we all are capable of making at least some small contribution ourselves.
But entertainment always comes first in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, so none of this anti-appeasement propaganda gets in the way of a good adventure story.