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The First Great Train Robbery April 20, 2008

Posted by jackal in : Films , add a comment

A favourite of mine since childhood, Michael Crichton’s The First Great Train Robbery is a wonderfully entertaining caper movie that really ought to be better known that it seems to be. Taking as his basis the real-life robbery of a gold shipment from the London to Folkestone passenger train in 1855, Crichton fictionalised the crime in his historical novel The Great Train Robbery (1975). In 1978 he adapted his novel for the screen and, fresh from helming medical thriller Coma, also took the directorial reins.

In a vividly recreated Victorian London (filmed mostly in Ireland and at Pinewood Studios) con-man Edward Pierce (Sean Connery), together with fellow criminals Agar (Donald Sutherland) and Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down), schemes to steal a £25,000 shipment of gold bound for the Crimean war effort. To do so will require copying the four separately stored keys required to open the safe, not to mention actually removing the gold from a guarded passenger train travelling at speed across the English countryside.

From this premise Crichton spins a delightfully playful series of escapades, as the trio hatch and execute elaborate plans for the theft of each successive key, overcoming unforeseen obstacles and dodging detection at every turn. The cast plays everything with a light touch, making for a film that is frequently amusing, often laugh-out-loud funny, yet is never in danger of spilling over into open comedy.

As Pierce, Connery brings immense charm and presence to a character that is deliberately drawn with only the vaguest of brush strokes in the script - as in Crichton’s original novel, we learn almost nothing about Edward Pierce during the film; he’s a clever, incredibly ballsy criminal, and he wants the Crimean gold. Throw in Connery’s gruff charisma, and that’s all you need. Connery and Sutherland, working together for the only time, also make for a marvellous double-act, the good-natured humour springing from their every weary glance or throwaway line. Lesley-Anne Down as Miriam, who finds herself donning various disguises throughout the story, is as amusing as she is alluring. In support, Malcolm Terris makes a big impression as a hilariously lecherous and unsuspecting patsy who is repeately duped by Pierce’s scheme; dancer Wayne Sleep, playing talented “snakesman” Clean Willy, apparently performed his own remarkable climbing stunts; elsewhere, the film is peppered with familar faces like Michael Elphick as the bribed train guard who watches in bemusement while Pierce’s crazy scheme unfolds around him.

As a kid, I was enthralled by the tense yet fun set-pieces that drive the picture. Watching now, I still find it as thrilling as I ever did, while the evocation of the 1850s period setting really struck me for the first time. Whether it’s cobblestone streets dressed as Victorian London, the smog-filled night sets, or the country scenes, the effect is quite convincing. Aided by frequent matte paintings, not to mention a dazzling array of period beards and whiskers among the male cast, the film makes a damn good stab at evoking 1855 London (as I imagine it to have been, anyway - I don’t remember it first hand ;) ).

The robbery itself, filmed on a vintage passenger train in Ireland, makes for a suitably exciting climax, not least because when Pierce makes his run - clambering along the entire length of the fast-moving train - it’s clearly Sean Connery doing the stunt work himself, leaping from carriage to carriage and ducking under low bridges with seconds to spare. The ending deviates from Crichton’s novel (and from the real crime itself) to provide an upbeat outcome that is much more satisfying and appropriate to the film’s playful and fun tone.

The contribution of Jerry Goldsmith’s score cannot be overlooked either. From the very first chords of his exhilarating main theme, Goldsmith perfectly captures the light-hearted spirit of this heist movie. In my opinion it’s one of his finest scores; I just wish I had it on CD.

MGM’s disc of this film is a few years old and in need of an upgrade. The only special feature on the R1 is a Michael Crichton commentary (missing on R2), while the picture isn’t even anamorphic and the film itself doesn’t look stellar. It’s watchable, yes, but for an old favourite like this, I hope we get an improved transfer in the future.

Incidentally, this is the first post on jackal’s film corner for several months. I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop posting, but I’ve had other things occupying my spare time - not least of which was writing a novel (no, not for publication, just my own amusement). Today’s post doesn’t represent a return to business as normal, but I simply couldn’t resist penning a tribute to The First Great Train Robbery - one of those films that just makes me smile from beginning to end.

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