The First Great Train Robbery
|The Great Train Robbery|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Michael Crichton|
|Produced by||John Foreman|
|Screenplay by||Michael Crichton|
|Based on||The Great Train Robbery
by Michael Crichton
|Music by||Jerry Goldsmith|
|Edited by||David Bretherton|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Running time||110 minutes|
The First Great Train Robbery – known in the U.S. as The Great Train Robbery – is a 1978 film directed by Michael Crichton, who also wrote the screenplay based on his novel The Great Train Robbery. The film starred Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, and Lesley-Anne Down.
In 1854, Edward Pierce (Sean Connery), to all appearances a charismatic and well-established member of London's high society, is secretly an opportunistic and cynical master thief. He plans to steal a shipment of gold (sent monthly to finance the Crimean War) travelling from London to Folkestone. The bank has taken strict precautions, including locking the gold in two heavy Chubb safes, each of which has two locks, requiring a total of four keys to open them. When a test robbery (using a hired stooge to test the security measurements) goes awry, Pierce recruits his old acquaintance Robert Agar (Donald Sutherland), a pickpocket and screwsman. Pierce's mistress Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down), a beautiful actress, and his driver Barlow (George Downing) also join in on the plot, and the guard to the safe car, Burgess (Michael Elphick), is also bribed into participation. Pierce plans the robbery in explicit detail, and procures information on the security measures and locations of the keys. The executives of the bank who store the gold and arrange its transport, Mr. Henry Fowler and Mr. Edgar Trent, each possess a key; the other two are locked in a cabinet at the offices of the South Eastern Railway at the London Bridge train station. The keys are not to be stolen, but wax impressions are to be made of them in order to hide the robbers' intentions.
Pierce's first target is the key held by Edgar Trent (Alan Webb). Through painstaking surveillance, Pierce learns that Trent is keen on ratting (a blood sport involving the betting on dogs killing rats) and succeeds in becoming acquainted with the man. While visiting the Trent mansion, Pierce begins to court Elizabeth (Gabrielle Lloyd), Trent's daughter, and learns from her that the key is hidden in the house's wine cellar. Pierce and Agar successfully break into Mr. Trent's home at night and make a wax impression of the key.
Henry Fowler (Malcolm Terris) proves an easier target, due to his appetite for prostitutes. Pierce establishes Miriam as a high-level prostitute in an exclusive brothel. Miriam reluctantly takes Fowler to a suite and asks him to undress, during which process he must remove his key, which he wears around his neck. Whilst Fowler is distracted by Miriam, Agar secretly makes an impression of his key. Pierce simulates a police raid on the brothel before Fowler can have sex with Miriam, and Fowler flees to avoid a scandal.
To access the remaining keys at the train station, Pierce and Agar stage a diversion using Agar's illegitimate son as a pickpocket, but the attempt fails. Pierce decides to use the cat burglar Clean Willy (Wayne Sleep) to open the office doors from within, so that Agar can access the keys when the station guard attends the restrooms. Since Clean Willy is currently incarcerated at Newgate Prison, Pierce uses the alias "John Simms" to send a message through Willy's former mistress. Pierce then assists him in escaping from Newgate while the public is distracted by an execution. With Willy's help, the criminals succeed in taking wax impressions of the keys.
As preparations for the robbery continue, the gang finds itself compromised: Clean Willy is captured following a burglary attempt and informs on Pierce. Willy attempts to lure Pierce into a trap under the pretence of asking him for more money. Pierce has Willy murdered before his identity is revealed to the police, but the authorities are now aware that a robbery of the gold train is imminent. The police increase security by having the safe car locked from the outside until the train arrives at its destination, and no passengers may enter the safe car at any time.
Undeterred, Pierce smuggles Agar into the safe car inside a coffin. Pierce plans to get to the car across the car roofs while the train is under way, but he and Miriam (who is posing as Agar's mourning sister) encounter Fowler, who has decided to embark in order to watch over the transport. After arranging for Miriam to travel with Fowler in the same compartment in order to divert his attention, Pierce crosses the roof of the train and unlocks the safe car door from the outside. He and Agar replace the gold with lead and toss the bags of gold off the train at a pre-arranged point. Soot from the engine's smoke stains Pierce's clothes, and he is forced to borrow Agar's suit, which is much too small for him. The jacket splits across the back when he disembarks at Folkstone. The police quickly recognize him as a suspect and arrest him before he can rejoin his accomplices outside the station.
Pierce is swiftly tried and sentenced for heavy robbery. As he exits the courthouse, he receives the adulation of the poorer British masses, who consider him a folk hero for his daring act. In the midst of the hubbub, a disguised Miriam kisses him while slipping him a key to his handcuffs. Agar is also present, disguised as the prison wagon driver. As Pierce is about to be shoved into the wagon, he frees himself and escapes to the jubilation of the crowd and the chagrin of the officials.
- Sean Connery as Edward Pierce
- Donald Sutherland as Agar
- Lesley-Anne Down as Miriam
- Alan Webb as Trent
- Malcolm Terris as Henry Fowler
- Robert Lang as Sharp
- Michael Elphick as Burgess
- Wayne Sleep as Clean Willy
- Pamela Salem as Emily Trent
- Gabrielle Lloyd as Elizabeth Trent
- George Downing as Barlow
- James Cossins as Harranby
Film rights to the novel were bought in 1975 by Dino de Laurentiis. In 1977 it was announced the film would be made in Ireland by American International Pictures with Sean Connery and Jacqueline Bisset.
Crichton deliberately varied the movie from his book. He said "the book was straight, factual but the movie is going to be close to farce."
Sean Connery originally turned down the movie after reading the script, judging it "too heavy". He was asked to reconsider, read the original novel, met Crichton, and changed his mind.
Sean Connery performed most of his own stunts in the film, including the extended sequence on top of the moving train. The train was composed of an original locomotive from 1855 and coaches that were made for the movie from railway flat carriages. Connery was told that the train would travel at only 20 miles per hour during his time on top of the cars. However, the train crew used an inaccurate means of judging the train's speed. The train was actually doing speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour. Connery wore soft rubber soled shoes and the roofs of the carriages were covered with a sandy, gritty surface. Connery actually slipped and nearly fell off the train during one jump between two carriages, and had difficulty keeping his eyes free of smoke and cinders from the locomotive.
Origins of the plot
The film's plot is loosely based on the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, in which a cracksman named William Pierce engineered the theft of a trainload of gold being shipped to the British Army during the Crimean War. The gold shipment of £12,000 (equal to £978,455 today, USD$1,281,550, or €930,143) in gold coin and ingots from the London-to-Folkestone passenger train was stolen by Pierce and his accomplices, a clerk in the railway offices named Tester, and a skilled screwsman named Agar. The robbery was a year in the planning and involved making sets of duplicate keys from wax impressions for the locks on the safes, and bribing the train's guard, a man called Burgess.:210 Crichton, the author of the book and the screenplay, was inspired by Kellow Chesney's 1970 book The Victorian Underworld, which is a comprehensive examination of the more sordid aspects of Victorian society.
In his screenplay Crichton based his character "Clean Willy" Williams on another real-life character from Chesney's book, a housebreaker named Williams (or Whitehead) who, sentenced to death in Newgate Prison, escaped from prison by climbing the 15-meter (50-ft.) tall sheer granite walls, squeezing through the revolving iron spikes at the top, and climbing over the inward projecting sharp spikes above them before making his escape over the roofs.:187 The only completely fictional character in the movie is Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down).
Although set in London and Kent, most of the filming took place in Ireland. In particular, the final scenes were filmed in Trinity College, Dublin and Kent railway station in Cork The scenes on the moving train were filmed on the Mullingar to Athlone railway line (now closed) around the Castletown Geoghan area. The train driver was John Byrne from Mullingar (now deceased).
The film's lavish, energetic soundtrack was written by Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith. The score marked his third collaboration with writer/director Michael Crichton following Pursuit (1972) and Coma (1978). The music for two pianos, played by the characters Elizabeth (Gabrielle Lloyd) and Emily Trent (Pamela Salem) is from the third movement of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448 Molto Allegro.
The Great Train Robbery has a critical rating of 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The site's critics praised the film's comedic tone, action sequences, and Victorian details. Variety wrote that "Crichton's film drags in dialog bouts, but triumphs when action takes over." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times singled out Connery, writing that the actor "is one of the best light comedians in the movies, and has been ever since those long-ago days when he was James Bond." And the New York Times' Vincent Canby praised director Crichton's "amplitude...in this visually dazzling period piece," and that "the climactic heist of the gold, with Mr. Connery climbing atop the moving railroad cars, ducking under bridges just before a possible decapitation, is marvelous action footage that manages to be very funny as it takes your breath away."
- Edgar Award, Best Motion Picture Screenplay, 1980 — Michael Crichton
- Owen, Michael (28 Jan 1979). "Director Michael Crichton Films a Favorite Novelist". New York Times. p. D17.
- The Great Train Robbery at Box Office Mojo
- Thomas, Bob (21 Sep 1975). "Movies: Director Dino hits the shores of America". Chicago Tribune. p. e16.
- Fitzsimons, Godfrey (10 Jun 1977). "Hollywood company to make $5m. film here". The Irish Times. p. 13.
- Sterritt, David (3 Apr 1979). "Sean Connery: Ex-Milkman with a Famous Face". Christian Science Monitor. p. B24.
- Mann, Roderick (19 Dec 1978). "The Diagnoses of Dr. Crichton". Los Angeles Times. p. f16.
- Bray, Christopher (2011). Sean Connery: A Biography. New York: Pegasus. ISBN 9781453217702.
- Chesney, Kellow (1970). The Victorian Underworld. London: Maurice Temple Smith Ltd. ISBN 0851170021.
- "The Great Train Robbery (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2 July 2014.
- "Review: 'The First Great Train Robbery'". Variety. 31 Dec 1978.
- Ebert, Roger (9 Feb 1979). "The Great Train Robbery". Chicago Sun-Times.
- Canby, Vincent (2 Feb 1979). "The First Great Train Robbery (1979)". New York Times.
- The Great Train Robbery at the Internet Movie Database
- The Great Train Robbery at AllMovie
- The Great Train Robbery at Box Office Mojo
- The Great Train Robbery at Rotten Tomatoes