The Great Train Robbery, a.k.a.
The First Great Train Robbery
directed by Michael Crichton
(MGM, 1979)

It seems tame now.

Even by 1979's standards, it probably seemed like no big deal. But in 1855, a robbery from a moving train was considered impossible. And Sean Connery is just the man to pull off the caper.

The Great Train Robbery is a recreation of real events only in the loosest sense. The screenplay, by director Michael Crichton, is based more on his own novel than on the real events of 1855. But the movie doesn't pretend to be a history lesson; it's a fun criminal escapade where the audience takes delight in rooting for the thieves as the plot is slowly revealed.

Connery, as Edward Pierce, is a gentleman thief in the grandest tradition. To make the crime happen, he enlists the acting talents of his lover, Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down), the screwsman Agar (Donald Sutherland), snakesman "Clean Willy" Williams (Wayne Sleep), the coachman Barlow (George Downing) and turncoat railway guard Burgess (Michael Elphick). Some of their trades might sound foreign to modern ears, and certainly the script doesn't balk at using period jargon -- but that only adds to the atmosphere, which is delightfully Victorian. (I watched the film with the subtitles on, to make comprehension easier.)

And it is the Victorian era, in many ways, that stars in this picture. There is a certain elegance, a degree of manner that is very distinct to that period, as is the seedier underbelly of English society in those days. Crichton and his cast succeed admirably in capturing that air.

The cast is likewise excellent; both Connery and Sleep handled dangerous stunts themselves, which adds all-too-rare realism to the scenes. And the plot, while proceeding a bit too much like clockwork despite occasionally hitches along the way, is a pleasure to watch come together.

The Great Train Robbery won't appeal to modern audiences who like their action coupled with big-budget special effects, explosions or high body counts. But those who enjoy a touch of elegance in their movies will surely enjoy this flash to the past.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 11 January 2003

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