By Linc Leifeste | September 16, 2014
Director: Michael Crichton
Writer: Michael Crichton
Starring: Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Lesley-Anne Down, Alan Webb, Malcolm Terris, Robert Lang, Michael Elphick
Thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ continuing series of reissues, the world has a second chance to become acquainted with a classic 1978 film they may have sadly overlooked. Written and directed by Michael Crichton (adapted from his novel), The Great Train Robbery is the loosely historical telling of what is allegedly the first train robbery in history, taking place in England in 1855. I can’t speak much to how historically accurate the film is but I can tell you right now that the film is, without a doubt, a wildly entertaining, visually striking period piece.
Perfectly cast, Sean Connery plays thief Edward Pierce, who has the idea of robbing a train carrying a large amount of gold ultimately on its way to Crimea to pay British troops fighting there. Prior to this, nobody had robbed a moving train, this giving him something of an element of surprise in his endeavor. To assist him, he recruits talented locksmith Agar (Donald Sutherland) and also takes advantage of the skills of his talented girlfriend and partner in crime, Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down). Unlike the popular conception of train robberies, Pierce and crew don’t make plans to rob the train with guns and masks, overtaking it on horseback or derailing it first. No, this is not primarily an action film, instead being equal parts suspense, comedy, action and caper film.
The gold is kept in safes that require four keys to open. Those four keys are kept collectively safe, in theory, by each being kept in the possession of a different person. The first half of the film is the slowly paced, reservedly comedic narration of the thieves’ attempts to gain access to those four keys. This involves Miriam posing as a prostitute (a ploy that works on one victim but not another), a trip to an underground rat-baiting contest, an attempt to woo a homely daughter of a key-keeper, a secretive home invasion to steal a key from a wine cellar and another daring, high-stakes robbery from the railway company office that is constantly guarded.
After all the keys are gathered, the film shifts gears somewhat for the actual train robbery, cranking up the suspense and action while losing none of its comedic charm. The robbery itself, an unforgettable cinematic accomplishment, involves Sutherland’s locksmith cleverly gaining access to the rearward safe-holding train car while Connery’s Pierce has to make his way there from a frontal passenger car by climbing atop the moving train and making his way through the train’s heavy steam on a race against time while repeatedly having to avoid low bridges that come perilously close to removing his head from his shoulders. It’s an expertly staged and masterfully filmed finale that is the complete antithesis of modern day action sequences, serving along with the film as a whole as a stark reminder of just how great American cinema was just a few short decades ago.