Easily the best movie that novelist/filmmaker Michael Crichton ever directed—thanks to a larky story, rich cinematography, and two vivid performances—The Great Train Robbery is an old-fashioned escapist adventure. Set in late-19th-century England, the movie concerns gentleman crook Edward (Sean Connery), who travels in high-society circles while cruising for possible schemes. One day, Edward learns the particulars about a regular gold shipment transported by the British government to cover military expenses. Excited at the prospect of being the first person to ever rob a moving train, Edward enlists cronies including femme fatale Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down) and pickpocket John (Donald Sutherland). Over the course of several months, Edward’s team tracks down and copies the four keys needed to open the locked train safe in which the gold is stored during transit. Concurrently, Edward contrives an outlandish method for getting onto the train undetected. When unexpected complications arise, Edward’s gang responds with imagination and verve.
Crichton, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel of the same name, based the story on a real event. As a result, the narrative has the flavor of authenticity even though the tone is strictly lighthearted. Better still, Crichton stays laser-focused on the fun of depicting a seemingly impossible heist, rather than getting bogged down in contrived plotting and/or iffy characterization (two conundrums that permeate Crichton’s wholly original stories). That’s not to say The Great Train Robbery is flawless; quite to the contrary, the movie drags in the middle and contains several passages of stilted dialogue, such as Crichton’s weak attempts at double entendre-laden romantic patter. Nonetheless, the virtues of The Great Train Robbery outweigh the shortcomings. First and foremost, the movie looks gorgeous. Employing his signature deep-focus compositions and haze filters, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth creates a look that seems as if it’s illuminated by the gas lamps of the story’s historical period. Fantastic costuming and production design complete the intoxicating illusion of Unsworth’s imagery.
Leading man Connery, ever comfortable in the role of the handsome rascal, sells the effervescent aspects of his characterization with a grace reminiscent of Cary Grant, and he underlines the physicality of the character with impressive stunt work on moving trains. Sutherland provides a terrific foil, opting for eccentric whining as a contrast to Connery’s unflappable poise; with his mutton-chop sideburns and scowling expressions, Sutherland approaches but safely avoids camp. Leading lady Down is more beguiling than interesting—while her work in The Great Train Robbery is competent, all she’s really asked to do is look seductive. It’s true that The Great Train Robbery is a bit windy at 110 minutes, although the painstaking approach pays off with such long scenes as the nighttime break-in at a train-depot office. However, with expert composer Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing music pushing things along, The Great Train Robbery snaps back into shape for a bravura finish.
The Great Train Robbery: GROOVY