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|
|Editing 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 1979 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, on the outside a charismatic and well-established member of London's high society, but in secret an opportunistic and cynical master thief, makes plans to steal a shipment of gold being transported monthly from London to Folkestone to finance the Crimean War and replace it with lead bars to escape premature detection. But the bank has taken strict precautions, including locking the gold in two heavy Chubb safes, each of which has two locks, thus requiring a total of four keys to open. When a first test robbery (using a hired stooge to test the security measurements) goes awry, Pierce recruits his old acquaintance Robert Agar, a pickpocket and screwsman, as an accomplice. Pierce's mistress Miriam, a beautiful actress, and his cab driver Barlow also join in on the plot, and the guard to the safe car, Burgess, is also bribed into participation. To ensure the success of his plan, Pierce plans out the robbery in explicit detail, and even 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 copies are to be made of them in order to hide the robbers' intentions.
Pierce's first target is the key held by Edgar Trent. 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, Trent's daughter, and manages to learn from her that the key is hidden in the house's basement wine cellar. Pierce and Agar successfully break into Mr. Trent's home at night and make a wax copy of the key. Henry Fowler proves an easier target, as he likes to visit certain establishments for rather illicit purposes. Establishing Miriam as a high-level prostitute, Pierce hatches a plan to get the wax copy for Fowler's key. A highly reluctant Miriam takes Fowler to a suite in which he has to undress himself, including his key which he always wears around his neck for safety. Just before Miriam is forced to have sex with him, Pierce initiates the sounds of a (fake) raid on the brothel, forcing Fowler to run for his life just after Agar manages to copy the key.
What is now left are the two keys at the train station. Pierce and Agar first conduct a diversion using Agar's illegitimate son as a pickpocket, but the attempt fails. Therefore, Pierce decides to have the office burgled and the doors opened from within by the cat burglar Clean Willy, so that Agar can slip in at night and copy the keys while the station guard attends the restrooms. Since Clean Willy is currently incarcerated in Newgate Prison, Pierce, using an old alias called "John Simms", sends a message through Willy's former mistress and assists him in escaping from Newgate while the public is distracted by an execution. With Willy's help, the criminals succeed in making wax copies of the two keys at the railway station.
With all four copies of the keys in Pierce's possession, Agar is able to perform a dry run of the theft to make sure that the copied keys work perfectly. Everything appears to be moving along smoothly until the gang finds itself seriously compromised: Clean Willy has turned informant to the police after an unlucky attempt at theft, and after informing them of his burglary in the station office (although he is unable to reveal full details to the plan behind it) and under the pretense of asking for more money, he nearly has Pierce lured into a trap. Pierce manages to have Willy murdered, although his plans are now greatly compromised by law enforcement agents who correctly fear that a major robbery of the gold train is at hand. The police increases security by having the door locked from the outside until the train arrives at its destination, and no passengers may travel inside the safe car.
Undeterred, Pierce manages to smuggle Agar into the baggage van inside a coffin and plans to get to the safe car across the wagon roofs while the train is on its way, but he and Miriam (who is posing as Agar's mourning sister) encounter Fowler, who has decided to travel along 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 climbs across the roof of the train during their journey and unlocks the door from the outside, thus allowing them to drop off the gold at the pre-arranged point. However, the soot from the engine's smoke stains Pierce's clothes, and so he is forced to borrow Agar's suit, which is much too small for him; the jacket splits across the back when he exits the train 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 put on trial, where he is sentenced for heavy robbery. As he exits the courthouse, he receives the adoration 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, thereby 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 fights free and escapes under 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
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. Connery also had difficulty keeping his eyes free of smoke and cinders from the locomotive.
Origins of the plot
The story is loosely based on the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, in which a cracksman called William Pierce (named Edward Pierce in Crichton's book and film) engineered the theft of a train-load of gold being shipped to the British Army during the Crimean War. The gold shipment of £12,000 (equal to £949,504 today which in turn is USD $1,281,550 and 930,143 Euros) 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 called Tester, and a skilled screwsman called 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. The plot 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 used another real-life character from Chesney's book, a housebreaker called Williams (or Whitehead) who, sentenced to death in Newgate Prison, managed to escape 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. Crichton based his character "Clean Willy" Williams, played by dancer Wayne Sleep, on Williams. The only completely fictional character in the movie is the woman Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down), who is romantically involved with Pierce and who, along with Agar, is Pierce's "eyes and ears," looking out for any weaknesses that can be exploited in committing the title crime.
Although set in London and Kent, most of the filming took place in Ireland. In particular, the final scenes were filmed in Parliament Square of 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
- Director Michael Crichton Films a Favorite Novelist By MICHAEL OWEN. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 28 Jan 1979: D17.
- The Great Train Robbery at Box Office Mojo
- Bray, Christopher. Sean Connery: A Biography (Open Road Media, 2011).
- Chesney, Kellow 'The Victorian Underworld' Pub. Maurice Temple Smith Ltd (1970), p. 210.
- Chesney, p. 187.
- "The First Great Train Robbery (The Great Train Robbery) (1979)," Rotten Tomatoes. Accessed Nov. 29, 2011.
- The First Great Train Robbery review," Variety (Dec. 31, 1978).
- "The Great Train Robbery," Chicago Sun-Times (Feb. 9, 1979).
- 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