Today’s cinema adventure: The Great Train Robbery, a 1979 period caper comedy directed and written by Michael Crichton, based on his own book, which in turn was based on the real-life 1855 theft of gold bars meant as pay for the English soldiers of the Crimean War- the first robbery ever to take place aboard a moving train. Painstakingly accurate in period detail, expertly played with just the right blend of devilish humor and edgy thrills, it features sparkling chemistry between its three stars (Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down), a clever depiction of the intricate and crafty plot, a rousing score by ace film composer Jerry Goldsmith, and a magnificent climactic sequence featuring Connery (doing his own stunt work) navigating his way across the roof of the train as it speeds through the idyllic English countryside.
Crichton’s original novel, which took the facts of the real-life heist and transformed them into a fictional narrative by using pseudonyms, composite characters, and clever re-imagining of the details, became a best-seller in 1975 and seemed tailor-made from the outset for translation onto the screen, particularly in the wake of such successful genre entries as The Sting and Murder on the Orient Express; and while an author’s helming the adaptation of his own work might seem ill-advised, at best, in this case the choice was right on target. Crichton was a jack-of-all-trades if ever there was one, and his understanding of the film medium here resulted in a crowd-pleasing piece of cinematic candy that sparkles with contemporary style even as it maintains its commitment to the demands of its Victorian setting. For, though the historical accuracy of the events depicted may be tenuous, attention to period detail is rigorously observed. Crichton paints a vivid picture of the Industrial Age, not only with the meticulous detail of the sets and costumes, but with his emphasis on the dehumanizing conditions, the corruption and inequity of the social order, and the contrast between extreme poverty and ostentatious wealth. Not that The Great Train Robbery is a film devoted to deep meaning or social commentary; these elements are present to fuel a decidedly modern anti-establishment undercurrent and elicit audience sympathy for the roguish trio of anti-heroes, despite their unabashedly selfish motivations and their ruthless tactics, by casting them in the mold of populist outlaws- a sort of Victorian Bonnie and Clyde, plus one. This perceptual conceit is part of what makes the film so much fun; we can be firmly on the side of these wrongdoers as we watch them execute their audacious scheme, and Crichton ensures our continued interest by doling out the details of that scheme in small pieces- we are given just enough insider information to know what is going on without being deprived of the thrill and surprises that come from seeing it carried out.
It helps that The Great Train Robbery is beautifully photographed by the legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth- one of the last films to claim that honor, it is dedicated to his memory- and that the aforementioned set and costume designs (by Bert Davey and Anthony Mendleson, respectively, in collaboration with Production Designer Maurice Carter) are sumptuously executed; each of these artists play an indispensable role in realizing the elaborately recreated 19th Century London in which the bulk of the film’s action plays out. The previously noted Goldsmith score is effective throughout for setting the mood and tone; but when the setting finally opens up, for the climax, into the countryside, his music makes its most magnificent contribution, adding to the giddy feeling of freedom conjured by the wide open locale, and to the breathless excitement of watching as the final stages of the robbery take place- and as Connery makes his death-defying journey along the length of the moving train. It’s a payoff almost as satisfying as the one enjoyed by the film’s characters.
The Great Train Robbery is not a profound movie, nor a deeply layered one; it is hardly one of those sublime masterpieces which holds up to repeated viewings throughout a lifetime, and yet when I watched it again recently after having not seen it for a number of years (more than I’m willing to admit to), I was thoroughly delighted to find that it was at least as enjoyable as when I saw it as an impressionable lad, sitting in a darkened theatre and wanting to grow up to be Sean Connery. Often when a movie strives only to entertain, it falls short by trying too hard, or aiming too low, or- worst of all- trying to pretend it has a weightier agenda than it really does: The Great Train Robbery suffers from none of these shortfalls. It sets out only to deliver a thrilling ride and it succeeds at exactly that- which is more than can be said of most of the overachieving would-be crowd-pleasers being offered up by filmmakers today. Of course, they don’t have the benefit of Sean Connery…