Review: The Great Train Robbery

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

It’s fairly hard, and also somewhat presumptuous and pointless, to try and get a fix on the directing career of the prolific writer Michael Crichton after only three films. Westworld would seem as different from Coma as Coma is from The Great Train Robbery (called The First Great Train Robbery in Britain, where it was made), which is a jolly period caper romp set in 1855. If all three films can be boiled down to a common core, it’s simply that Crichton believes people are better than machines, and have to be, because if they’re not, then machines are what they will themselves become.

In this new film, barefaced Victorian criminality is made to seem better than smug Victorian hypocrisy, and robbing the Folkestone express of the £25,000 in gold destined for the Crimea (as payment for our gallant lads in the war with Russia) becomes a jeu d’esprit, a triumph of ingenuity over faceless authority, a rising to the challenge of showing the money boys that locks and keys and armed guards are not necessarily safeguards to the sacred icons of the capitalist bourgeoisie. And theft, not murder (which is committed on behalf of our dubious heroes at one point – a miscalculation in terms of entertainment dynamics), is what makes society bay for vengeance. At his trial, the ringleader of the robbery (a bearded Sean Connery, looking not coincidentally like Lenin in a series of tight-fitting flat caps) is asked by a crimson-faced judge what could possibly have made him commit so dastardly, heinous and unChristian a deed. Simply – and honestly – he replies, “I wanted the money…” – and this gets 20 years put on his sentence. In the world of shocking economic contrasts, such as the film has explored, such frankness is not what the owners of society want to hear. This two-facedness of the property-owning classes goes hand in hand with a conspicuous dullness; one can’t really feel very sorry for the prim bores who get stung, for their only fun seems to be attending evenings of atrocious piano-playing by frustrated wives and unmarriageable daughters, or (secretly) in boyishly contemplating the pleasure of the unspeakable. One prominent banker is a “ratting gent” – he bets on how many rats his hungry bulldog can bloodily devour in a pit full of them – whilst another gets all a-quiver when the Connery character’s doxy (Lesley-Anne Down) tells him about an admirer of hers who kept a collection of … whips! (He ripostes surrealistically by describing a mysterious organization called “the 50-mile-an-hour Club”.)

Crichton hasn’t quite got the ideal fluency for this sort of high-spirited yarn, and the first half-hour had me a little edgy: things didn’t go fast enough, the plot jerked along with rather too many convenient breaks being placed in our “loveable” rogues’ path, and the most intriguing element – the depiction of the Connery character as a sort of ancestor of Eli Kotch in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, a man who, by his own admission, “never tells the truth to anyone – is swiftly forgotten. But the latter phase of the film is a splendidly entertaining pile-up of outrageous plot turns, hilarious stray literary allusions (Donald Sutherland, as Connery’s henchman, turns up at one point guarding a “Murders in the Rue Morgue” orangutan, at another posing as a cholera-slain corpse complete with concealed dead cat to supply appropriate smell), and fast action, the last especially irresistible when Connery is so patently doing all, or at least 99 percent, of his own stunt work. At one point, he seems almost  to fall off the roof of the fast-moving train and, at another, visibly comes very close to cracking open his skull on a low bridge he notices only at the last possible moment. As The Wind and the Lion and The Man Who Would Be King showed, Connery is not only a first-rate actor but the present day’s most stylish heir to the Fairbanks tradition. When, at film’s end, he effects a getaway in one of the very machines with which the authorities seek to confine him, and waves a theatrical farewell to an adoring crowd of London’s poorest with a cracked pair of handcuffs subbing for a handkerchief, he seems the epitome of the gallant rogue, an archetypal example of that (wholly mythical) creature, the villain who becomes a hero by virtue of his effortless, establishment-defying cheek.

© 1979 Pierre Greenfield

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY
Screenplay and direction: Michael Crichton, after his novel. Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Production design: Maurice Carter. Editor: David Bretherton. Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
The players: Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Lesley-Anne Down, Alan Webb, Robert Lang, Wayne Sleep, Malcolm Terris, Pamela Salem.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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