The First Great Train Robbery (1979 UK)

first-great-train-robbery-6 During the 1950s, censors in most countries either forbade or strongly discouraged films which glamourized crime, but the relaxation of censorship in the 1960s lead to the emergence of a new genre – the “heist” movie. These were films which told the story of a robbery from the viewpoint of the criminals, and were generally light-hearted in tone. “The Thomas Crown Affair” & “The Italian Job”, both from the late 60s are good examples of this immoral form of story telling. “The First Great Train Robbery” fits into this category, although it was unusual in having a period setting and in being based, albeit loosely, on a real-life event.

The film is set in 1855 and chronicles the theft of a large quantity of gold from the London to Folkestone train. (The gold is being taken to Europe in order to pay British troops fighting in the Crimean War). The scheme by which this is accomplished is a complex one, but it essentially involves making duplicates of the four separate keys to the safe in which the gold is being transported. The central character is Edward Pierce, played by Sean Connery as a sort of amateur gentleman cracksman along the lines of E.W. Hornung’s Raffles. Donald Sutherland plays Pierce’s working-class accomplice, pickpocket Robert Agar, and a third member of the gang is the burglar “Clean Willy” Williams, played by the dancer Wayne Sleep.

Connery may have tired of his best-known role, James Bond, but a number of his subsequent movies were in the same action-adventure genre as 007. “The First Great Train Robbery” follows the same formula as the Bonds, mixing suspense and humour in roughly equal proportions. There is even a Victorian Bond girl in the shape of Pierce’s mistress Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down), the sort of girl who habitually wears underwear far more scanty than that we have come to associate with the nineteenth century. There are a number of set-piece suspense scenes, such as the one where Willy escapes from Newgate Prison, and the one where Pierce has to balance on top of a moving train, avoiding being hit whenever the train passes under a bridge. (Both Sleep and Connery did their own stunts).

sutherland & connery

But exciting as the story is, the feature I like best in this film is its authentic atmosphere and its detailed recreation of Victorian London. No expense has seemingly been spared. The sets are huge and there are hundreds and hundreds of costumed extras milling around. And how about the train itself? Here’s a real vintage steam train let loose on a glorious jaunt through the beautifully photographed Irish countryside, standing in for England. The movie faithfully reflects some typical goings on of the Victorian era such as large differences of classes, public executions applauded by the assistants, carriage parades and many other things. Most of the humour is slightly bawdy in tone, poking fun at the prudish/hypocritical Victorians.

Thus the seductive Miriam manages to obtain one of the keys from its owner in a brothel, while Pierce and a seemingly respectable lady carry on a long conversation full of sexual innuendo. The hidden joke is that the double meanings are only apparent to a modern audience; to people in 1855 words such as “screwing”, “tools” and “erections” would probably only have had a single, non-sexual meaning. I find this kind of thing puerile and unbearably middle-class. If you wanna be crude, just be crude. All in all, this is a solid motion picture that bombed at the box office. Never underestimate how fickle the public can be. Writer-director Michael Crichton must have been cursing the bastards. He had better luck with dinosaurs.

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