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One of my favorites of all caper movies
on January 13, 2006
Based on the book and directed by Michael Crichton, this enjoyable caper movie from 1979 brings together a fantastic cast in an authentic 19th century Victorian environment to tell a story based around the true story of the first great train robbery. I saw this movie many years ago on British television and have always found it enjoyable so it was an easy buy for me.
In addition to a superb Sean Connery as the suave mastermind Edward Pierce (is Connery ever NOT suave) and the always amazing Donald Sutherland as his accomplice Agar, we also have Lesley-Anne Down as Miriam. Down was a favorite actress of mine from this era with movies like "The Pink Panther Strikes Again," "Rough Cut" and "Sphinx." Here she plays Connery's lover who is not afraid to use her quite incredible feminine charms to aid Pierce character.
Joining the three leads are such well known faces as British television celebrity Michael Elphick (as the railway guard who aids Pierce and Agar); Pamela Salem as Emily Trent (Salem would be reunited with Connery four years later in the rogue 007 film "Never Say Never Again") and Alan Webb as the bank president.
Filmed in Ireland with a modest budget of only $6 million, the script is intelligent, the action appropriate and the dialogue both witty and engaging. The showpiece stunt with Pierce on top of a moving train has since been copied many times since, including in the 1983 James Bond movie "Octopussy" with Roger Moore in the role that Sean Connery made famous). But this stunt sequence is distinctive in that Connery performed his own stunts. The train was supposed to be traveling only 35 miles-per-hour, but Connery argued that the train was actually moving much faster, an assertion that was confirmed by the helicopter pilot who measured the speed of the train at 55 miles-per-hour.
The movie, set in 1855, tells the story of the three conspirators attempts to steal $25 million in gold bullion that is being transported by train to pay British troops fighting in the Crimean War.
To gain access to the gold Pierce and Agar need copies to four keys and the bulk of the movie involves their efforts to obtain each key in what can be described as four separate caper tales.
The effort and difficulties facing the thieves is ably outlined by Connery in the opening narration to the movie:
"In the year 1855, England and France were at war with Russia in the Crimea. The English troops were paid in gold. Once a month, twenty-five thousand pounds in gold was loaded into strongboxes inside the London bank of Huddleston and Bradford and taken by trusted armed guards to the railway station. The convoy followed no fixed route or timetable. At the station, the gold was loaded into the luggage van of the Folkestone train for shipment to the coast and from there to the Crimea. The strongboxes were placed into two specially-built Chubb safes constructed of three-quarter inch tempered steel. Each safe weighed five hundred and fifty pounds. Each safe was fitted with two locks, requiring two keys, or four keys altogether. For security, each key was individually protected. Two keys were entrusted to the railway dispatcher who kept them locked in his office. A third was in the custody of Mr. Edgar Trent, president of the Huddleston and Bradford. And the fourth key was given to Mr. Henry Fowler, manager of the Huddleston and Bradford. The presence of so much gold in one place naturally aroused the interest of the English criminal elements. But in 1855 there had never been a robbery from a moving railway train."
There are some definite differences between the actual robbery on which Crichton based his work and the movie. The actual plot involved four criminals - Pierce, Agar, the railway guard Burgess, and a railway clerk named Tester and all four keys were kept on railroad premises in London and Folkestone. But as it turned out the two Foilkestone keys were not used. In addition the guard's van was not locked from the outside; Pierce and Agar were let in by Burgess, and a share of the loot was handed out to Tester at stations.
The crown jewel as far as supplementary material is concerned is the scene specific commentary by writer-director Crichton. Even given the intervening 18 years between the release of the movie and the recording of the commentary Crichton seems to have a wealth of anecdotal and technical recollections of the making of the movie and displays a genuine affection for the movie. We learn about the research he did for the book and the machinations that went on behind the scenes. Apparently the largely British and Irish crew initially had little respect for the young director until he ordered a copy of his 1978 movie "Coma" for them to watch, after which he got more respect. In another incident Crichton's hair caught on fire when the locomotive emitted burning embers.
There is also (as was common for MGM releases in the earlu days of DVD) an 8-page glossy, full color booklet with trivia surrounding the making of the movie.