In addition to writing bestselling novels like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton also found time to moonlight as a film director. One of his most successful efforts was The Great Train Robbery (1979), based on his own popular novel–which was inspired by a real crime.
The plot concerns the heist of a gold shipment being transported by train to pay British troops fighting in the Crimean War in 1855. The challenges are substantial. Not only must the gold be stolen while the train is moving, but it must be removed from two safes locked with four different keys. Two of the keys are stored in the railway offices in the train station and the other two keys are retained by company executives.
None of that is enough to sway Edward Pierce (Sean Connery) from tackling the crime of the century. With the aid of his mistress (Lesley-Anne Down), a pickpocket (Donald Sutherland), and a railway guard, he develops a complex scheme to steal the four keys and make wax impressions of them. His efforts, though, attract the attention of the police, which makes the actual robbery exceedingly more difficult than Pierce’s original plan.
The Great Train Robbery is lighthearted escapist fare for most of its running time (thus, a scene where Pierce strangles a crony seems out of place). Sean Connery has a grand time as the heist’s mastermind, never taking the plot too seriously but also refraining from winking figuratively at the audience. One of his most amusing scenes is a conversation with one of the executives’ wives that’s filled with enough double-entendres to make James Bond proud.
Donald Sutherland, one of the busiest actors of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is well cast as Connery’s partner-in-crime. However, the most surprising performance comes from Lesley-Anne Down, who spent much of her career stuck in superficial roles. In The Great Train Robbery, she gets to masquerade as an upper-class French prostitute and a cockney lass in addition to playing Connery’s plucky mistress.
Naturally, the film’s highlight is the robbery aboard the moving train. It requires Connery’s character to run along the tops of the railcars, ducking periodically to avoid being decapitated by bridges and tunnels. Incredibly, Connery does most of his own stunts, which include jumping from the tops of the cars. He actually fell off the train doing one stunt. In The Films of Sean Connery, the actor mentions that his wife Micheline was furious when she saw The Great Train Robbery and learned the risks he had undertaken.
In case you’re wondering, the real-life robbery did indeed involve stealing four safe keys and hijacking the gold from a speeding train. The similarities pretty much end there. Edward Agar, one of the thieves, was arrested after the robbery for passing a bad check. While in prison, he learned that one of his fellow criminals kept the portion of the gold intended for Agar’s mistress and illegitimate son. Agar then cooperated with the police, provided all the details on the heist, and all the train robbers were eventually captured.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!
This piece was originally reprinted on MovieFanFare in January and is being republished as part of our ongoing tenth anniversary celebrations!