The Great Train Robbery (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: A daring gold heist.

In 1855 Edward Pierce (Sean Connery) comes up with an idea to rob a large shipment of gold from a traveling train.  He recruits the services of his mistress Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down) and a screwsmen named Robert Agar (Donald Sutherland) to help him do it. The heist requires that they make copies of four keys that are used to open the safe, but each are possessed by four different bank executives forcing them into an elaborate scheme to attain them all. Eventually the authorities become aware of their plan making their heist even trickier to pull off.

The story is based on an actual incident that occurred in 1855 that Michael Crichton became intrigued by, which inspired him to write a fictionalized account that became a best-selling novel and in turn lead to him being offered the chance to direct the film version. As a period piece it succeeds as I loved the variety of wardrobes that the characters wear and the lavish settings that not only reveals London’s rich neighborhoods of that era, but its poverty-stricken ones as well all in amazingly accurate detail.

The film has an underlying quirky tone that is engaging, but this also makes it seem less authentic. For a crime caper to be enjoyable one must believe that it could really happen, or what the characters do is actually possible. There were times when I wasn’t convinced of either and the blame goes to the film trying too hard to be cute instead of just sticking to the detail.

Henry Fowler (Malcolm Terris) is one of the bank executives with a key who proudly proclaims to wear it around his neck, which he states that he ‘never’ takes off. In order to get the key and allow Robert to make a wax impression of it, Miriam pretends to be a prostitute who convinces him to take off the key, so they can make love, which he immediately does. This seems too easy as rarely do humans behave exactly as you think they will. When things come together without any hitch you start to question its validity. If a guy says he ‘never’ removes his key than make it much harder to convince him to do it, or force Robert to make the wax impressions of the key while Henry still has it around his neck and making out with Miriam, which would’ve been funnier.

Another segment has Robert breaking into an office at the railway station where two of the keys are stored inside a cabinet. The night watchman that guards the office always leaves at the same time for exactly 75 seconds to go to the bathroom. Robert is then forced to break into the office and make the wax impressions of the keys and then get out within that same 75 second time frame, but who goes to the bathroom at the exact same amount of time each and every time they go? Most people will go within a certain time range, but no one is that robotic to literally ‘count out the seconds’ as they pee. Having a character behave in such an extreme way only accentuates the film’s whimsical quality while throwing the believability out the door.

Later on in an effort to get inside the train compartment Robert pretends to be a corpse inside a coffin. To create a stench a dead cat is put in alongside him, but how was Robert able to withstand the horrible odor as people standing outside the coffin kept complaining about the unbearable smell. What was it about Robert that made him tolerate it as long as he does when almost no one else could’ve? This makes Robert seem super-human and gives even more leverage to the fact that this couldn’t have really happened at least not in the way done here.

The exciting ending features Connery, not a stunt double, but the actor himself getting on the train roof as the train is running at 55 mph and trying to go from the front of it to the back while ducking under numerous bridges that come whizzing by at lightning speed. This had me holding my breath, but I still came away wishing the film had stuck more to the original account. I read a brief overview of the real crime that was written in more detail by David C. Hanrahan in ‘The First Great Train Robbery’.  There are many differences between the real event and how it gets portrayed here with the real account being far more interesting.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 14, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Crichton

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

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