A 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.
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.
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’
- 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 Overkill] as 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.