The First Great Train Robbery (1978) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

First-Great-Train-RobberyA hugely successful writer, Michael Crichton had a more patchy career as a director. After two high concept hits, Westworld (1973) and Coma (1978), he changed tack with this meticulously researched caper based on a real-life Victorian bullion robbery. It won an Edgar but was only a modest success despite starring Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down and featuring an impressive train climax. Did it deserve to do better? And were there too many wigs on display?

The following review is submitted for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom and the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here.

“Why did you conceive, plan and execute this dastardly and scandalous crime?”
“I wanted the money”

The film was an adaptation by Crichton of his 1975 novel The Great Train Robbery (apparently First was added to the movie title to remove confusion from the notorious mail train robbery of 1963) and both are fictionalised versions of a true story from 1855. In what was apparently the first attempt to undertake a major robbery from a moving train, William Pierce and a safecracker named Edward Agar made off with 90 kilos of gold bullion headed to pay the British Army fighting the war in Crimea. Crichton refashioned this incident to create the fictional characters ‘Edward Pierce’ (Connery), the brains behind the plan, and ‘Robert Agar’ (Sutherland), a master safecracker. The entrancing Down supplies the love interest with a fictional character that has no real-life counterpart, while ballet star Wayne Sleep plays cat burglar ‘Clean Willy’, whose spectacular escape from Newgate prison by scaling its fifty-feet high walls was based on the real life exploits of a criminal from that era who was not however involved in the actual robbery.

Connery-Down-Sutherland-Train-Robbery

Crichton was usually most comfortable working in the SF or thrillers genres with stories built around technology or medicine but this film positively glories in its historical trappings (the film was mostly shot in Ireland), though in his introduction to the book he makes it clear how fascinated he was by the progress of steam-powered locomotion – but also how this event seemed to somehow bring into relief certain attitudes about the criminal class and the extent to which it was seen as just another way of doing business by them. Thus we are presented with three protagonists who are career criminals and so focus on the minutiae of how they went about their jobs – we see Agar perform a clever purse snatch on the street (we even get an instant-replay to make sure we caught his light-fingered action) and spend a lot of time on the complex planning required to get copies made of the closely guarded keys needed to open the safes.

“That’s what I call a proper woman – which that is to say – not proper at all”

There are some fun set-pieces, with the under-used Down pretending to be a tart at a brothel to get her hands on one of the keys for instance while Clean Willy’s late-night break-in to the station proves to be highly suspenseful. Caper movies run the gamut from the rough-hewn depiction of realistic criminality as found in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Rififi (1954) to the lightly comedic style of The Sting (1973) and Ocean’s 11 (1960). This film is certainly of the lighter variety but has a slightly heavier hand none the less when it comes to depicting its cold-blooded main character. Indeed Crichton, who as a writer and director tended to have a somewhat cool palette, presents Pierce as calculating and cocksure but also as something of an enigma, even to Miriam, which does become a bit of an impediment to our enjoyment frankly as it is quite hard to care about the characters, though they are probably most realistic this way of course. The killing of Clean Willy after he betrays them (filmed with what appears to have been an early type of Steadicam or the Panaglide rig) certainly confirms this ruthless side.

“Find me a dead cat!”

Sutherland gets to provide some humour however, especially when he has to pass himself off as a corpse to be able to get loaded onto the train in a coffin (containing a dead cat to provide the right smell of decomposition …) when security is increased and messes up their plans. Then, after nearly 75 minutes we get to the climactic section as the plan is executed with Pierce having to walk on the top of the train from his compartment and back again – this is highly impressive, not least because Connery did do nearly all his own stunts, which leads to some heart-stopping moments, all backed by Jerry Goldsmith’s typically robust waltz theme.

Connery-First-Great-Train

The book more or less follows the real-life conclusion with the characters being arrested but the films softens and simplifies things by letting them completely off the hook, which on the whole is probably the right approach. If the film is not entirely compelling it is because some of the plot details are weird (I still don’t understand on what basis Connery gets arrested towards the end for instance, especially as there is no evidence that a robbery has taken place at that point) – and the fact that all three of the leads wear wigs throughout, while helping perhaps with the period look, doesn’t make the main characters any more real. Ultimately you do have to like the protagonists in a caper movie and in this one we really don’t know who they are and care all that much about what happens to them, jolly romp though it undoubtedly is.

DVD Availability: Available on DVD in various adequate edition, the UK version has been cut by thirty seconds to eliminate any shots of the animals in the ‘ratting sequence’. Although widescreen, sadly it is not anamorphic so doesn’t really do justice to the great cinematography by the esteemed Geoffrey Unsworth, who died shortly after the end of filming aged only 64 (it is one of four films on which he worked that were released posthumously; it was dedicated to his memory as was Superman: The Movie).

Director: Michael Crichton
Producer: John Foreman
Screenplay: Michael Crichton
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Art Direction: Maurice Carter
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Lesley-Ann Down, Michael Elphick, Pamela Salem, Wayne Sleep

For those interested in find out more about Crichton’s life and work, they should visit his official homepage: www.michaelcrichton.net

The Michael Crichton mysteries & thrillers:

  • 1966 - Odds On as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1967 - Scratch One as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1968 - Easy Go [aka The Last Tomb) as by 'John Lange'Crichton-Lange-Odds-On
  • 1968 - A Case of Need as by 'Jeffrey Hudson'
  • 1969 - Zero Cool as by 'John Lange'
  • 1969 - The Venom Business as by 'John Lange'
  • 1970 - Dealing (co-written with Douglas Crichton) as by 'Michael Douglas'
  • 1970 - Drug of Choice [aka Overkillas by ‘John Lange’
  • 1970 - Grave Descend as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1972 - Binary as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1975 - The Great Train Robbery
  • 1992 - Rising Sun
  • 1994 - Disclosure
  • 1996 - Airframe
  • 2004 - State of Fear

With its historical setting and real-life basis, this is perhaps the most unusual of Crichton’s thrillers – the rather glacial leading character however stops it from being perhaps his most successful as either a book (which I read rather a long while ago, I must admit) or a film – and it doesn’t help that in the latter all three of the leads wear wigs throughout, which does become a bit of a distraction I’m afraid, even for as indulgent a toupee-ologist as myself.

*****(2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to The First Great Train Robbery (1978) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – And that, I must say, is my quibble with this film. The characters in the book are so much deeper and better developed. It’s not a caper at all. It’s actually one of my favourite of Chrichton’s books. I really enjoyed the historical aspects of the book, and the development of the robbery. The film’s not bad and as you say, it does stay true in some ways to the book. But it’s not (for my taste) a solid enough treatment of the book. Sorry if that sounds cranky; it isn’t as I say a bad film. I probably feel this way because I read the book first.

    • I agree with you, thanks for putting it so well Margot – I remember liking the book a lot more when I read it though it was ages ago. I re-watched the film and was definitely disappointed and will go back to the book as I would rather keep that in as fresh my memory.

  2. DoingDewey says:

    Haha, I loved the scene where he plays dead! I don’t watch a lot of older movies, but I really like Michael Crichton so I went out of my way to see this one :) I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t find the movie more enjoyable.

    • Don’t get me wrong Katie, I think it’s good fun (and I love caper stories) and the cast is fine but it is a weirdly disconnected film, with very little heart – but Sutherland soes get all the good laughs especially when playing possum! The book is better let’s put it that way!

  3. Colin says:

    I’ve never read the book but I think your assessment of the film is pretty fair – I remember it as being reasonable enough entertainment without quite living up to its promise. Mind you, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Your post has encouraged me to dust off my copy and give it another spin though.

    • Cheers Colin. The DVD is very barebones but at least is in widescreen though it is annoying that the UK edition is censored as the ‘ratting’ sequence does play very confusingly as you never, ever, see the dogs! Still, the animals get treated better here than they did in Wise’s fantastic film of Andromeda (I got the US edition of that disc). The film is definitely worth a look and maybe because period and caper films were on the wain at the time it does stand out a bit – the train climax is very impressive though, as is the scene in which Wayne Sleep scales a 50-foot wall (allegedly he really did this himself, though it’s just hearsay)

      • Colin says:

        I’ll probably try and give it another look tonight and get back to you.

        • Cheers mate – very curious to know what you think, especially given all the location shooting in Ireland (mainly Dublin and County Cork)

          • Colin says:

            Just watched it again. There is that detachment that you comment on where the leads are essentially as mysterious at the end as they are at the beginning – of course that’s partly to be expected with a Crichton film.
            And those locations do look very Irish. It’s not that I could say exactly where any of them are, just that they look more Irish than English – if that makes any kind of sense.

          • I shall definitely bow to your superior knowledge when it comes to the locations chum – it is as much architectural as it is geographical after all. It is a highly entertaining movie and does look fab, and not just the train climax which understandably is what gets most people excited.

          • Colin says:

            PS – I watched the US DVD which drops the “First” from the title, is uncut, and has the Crichton commentary.

          • I might have to get that – is it anamorphic? Because that would pretty much seal the deal for me! Thanks Colin.

          • Colin says:

            Non-anamorphic, sadly. You might want to hold off on that one – will be in touch.

          • Will do – thanks much chum.

  4. le0pard13 says:

    Solid assessment, Sergio. I re-screened this film over Spring and found a lot I agreed with in your piece. Man oh man, that train sequence was some of the best stunt work, with Connery performing extraordinarily, ever. Certainly, that segment of the film remains even more highly under-valued.

  5. TracyK says:

    I loved the movie and I loved the book. I probably liked the movie more than I would have if I had read the book first, but when I saw it, I was making no comparisons. Also really like all three of the stars … Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down… a lot. We also watched it with the commentary and enjoyed that a lot.

    I read the book just over 10 years ago, so it may be time to return to it.

    • There’s an edition with an audio commentary? I had no idea – thanks TracK, I will see about trying to track it down. I hope I wasn’t too hard on the film – I did enjoy it but was a little bit disappointed especially with the remoteness of the Connery character though the film is very far from humourless.

      • TracyK says:

        And I forgot to say… anything with trains is good, and the time period is interesting. I don’t think you were too critical.. it just wasn’t your cup of tea. But you really did not like those wigs.

        • Well, full confession here – I have this utterly mad passion for all things relating to toupees. I can spend hours chatting with a friend of mine who lectures on film in the north of England, marvelling at the wonderful receding wig that Larry Hagman used throughout the run of Dallas or the amazing facts unearthed about William Shatner’s hair in the extraordinary Shatner’s Toupee website (http://shatnerstoupee.blogspot.it/), which is a more serious website than you might thing. or arguing about who is more follicly challenged, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage or Beyoncé so for the love of all that is sane, don’t get me started …

          • TracyK says:

            Now you are scaring me, Sergio. But you are right, that website is not so bad. And I love William Shatner. Toupee or not.

          • Scary is the right word TracyK – but as you say, that’s the point of the site because Shatner is a terrific actor, either when serious or when comic – and I loved him in Boston Legal where he got to play both types of material.

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    Period pieces are hard to pull off, aren’t they. And some actors are better at doing them than others. Some great action sequences though.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    (Hm…I’m treating with the notion of this as an Old movie…)

    • I share your pain Todd – my friends who teach film studies in the UK first told me in the early 90s that, to their horror, their undergraduate students used to believe that nothing existed in film before Star Wars – then shortly afterwards this moved on to nothing before Pulp Fiction – now I do believe you have to measure it not in movie release dates but in terms of multi-platform PS3 releases and whatnot … I don’t say this with any criticism because let’s face it, if you compare the moviemaking style and technique used by Crichton in that film, shot almost entirely real-for-real with maybe one or two matte paintings and with a pace that is, until the train finale, incredibly slow, it does feel like it belongs to another era when compared to anything remotely commercial to have come out this century. For me ‘old’ probably means before colour become the norm in the late 1960s – but it is a sliding scale, it has to be, no? I know which I prefer though …

  8. Skywatcher says:

    I read the book before the movie, but I love them both. That said, the novel has always seemed to be a very different animal than the movie. The novel is using the same faux documentary style as THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, looking at the social mores of the time, whilst the movie is a pretty straightforward romp. The movie does actually do something quite interesting with the research that Crichton did. Characters speak in underworld argot, and things go on in the background behind our heroes, but very little is ever explained. You are just expected to piece together what is going on by looking and listening to the film. It’s rather like the approach that Ridley Scott took in BLADE RUNNER. There is a haunting little scene where Pierce seeks out Clean Willy’s mistress in the poorest quarters of London, and with Goldsmith’s creepy, evocative music it says more about the extreme poverty in Victorian England than any list of facts.

    The lack of characterisation is no worse than, say, the average Bond movie. And indeed, the casting of Connery is obviously intended to get the audience on side without a lot of explanation. No, we never really learn who Edward Pierce is, and what drives him (other than greed) but that really doesn’t matter. For the length of the movie we have agreed to take him as our hero, and Connery’s 007 could be rather cold-blooded at times.

    Jerry Goldsmith’s score is fantastic, and arguably one of his best. It came out on CD a while back, and it still sounds great in isolation from the movie.

    • Thanks very much for that Skywatcher – I do want to go back to the book as it has been a while since I read it. Using big name actors is certainly a very useful shortcut in movies though, in this case, it didn’t really make me care – but I quite agree, as in the book, it’s all the detail of mid 19th century England that utterly fascinates here. Goldsmith’s waltz theme is a bit like the one he wrote for The Boys from Brazil and both are wonderful, I quite agree.

  9. Sergio, thanks for a well-documented review of this film. I saw it years ago though I remember very little of it. With Connery and Sutherland in it, I would overlook the fact that it’s not a “compelling” film though their appearances can be off-putting. Would you say Crichton directed as well as he wrote? He had a ringside view on most of the films based on his books; a rather enviable position in Hollywood.

    • Thanks Prashant – Crichton was clearly some sort of multi-tasking genius and it is hard not to be in awe of his many accomplishments. He directed half a dozen films that he also wrote (the best are probably Coma, from Robin Cook’s book, and Westworld) while his least accomplished, Physical Evidence, is not coincidentally the only one of his directorial efforts that he didn’t take a writing credit on. But he also had a longstanding relationship with Spielberg with the success of the Jurassic Park film, the TV series E.R. which he created and wrote the pilot for and even Twister, for which he co-wrote the screenplay with his wife.

      • Sergio, I didn’t know Crichton wrote and directed COMA and WESTWORLD, one a medical thriller and the other an sf thriller. His hand in TWISTER was new to me as well though I’m not surprised. “Multi-tasking genius” is right — he was far ahead of the times. It’s as if he knew exactly what he wanted to do as a writer and filmmaker. His bio- or autobiography would have given us a fascinating insight into his life and career (is there one by any chance?).

        • Afraid not – he did write some non-fiction books but not an autobiography, at last not that I am aware of – sadly he did die quite young (like a lot of exceptionally tall people) – I’;; have to see of there is a biography out there – I’ve not read it if there is one …

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