Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Great Train Robbery (1978)

The Great Train Robbery (Michael Crichton, 1981) Michael Crichton learned of "The Great Gold Robbery" of 1885 (or as it was known at the time, "The First Great Train Robbery"* while giving a course on anthropology at Cambridge University (at the tender age of 22). He read the trial transcripts and found the story so fascinating—of the robbers' year of preparation and the purloining of keys to make wax impressions of them to manufacture duplicates to open the gold-bearing safes on the train—that he took to writing a novel about it changing the names of the criminals and some of the circumstances.

He published "The Great Train Robbery" in 1975, keeping the basic plot intact but with some authorial flourishes and changing the names of the main conspirators. "I find facts inhibiting," Crichton explained. "One has to have some fun. The more you know, the more you are obliged to tell the truth. I much prefer not to know. It's far more enjoyable trying to figure something out."

As opposed to the real mastermind of the crime, William Pierce, a ticket-taker for the very railway he would rob, Crichton's version is Edward Pierce (played in the film by Sean Connery), a grifter posing as a man of means, who recruits "Screwsman" Robert Agar (Donald Sutherland) and his multi-talented lover Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down) to pull off the majority of the steps necessary to lift the gold shipment meant to pay off the troops fighting the Crimean War.
The film's opening narration explains it all:
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.

The toughest part of the plan is acquiring the four distinct keys required to open the two Chubb safes holding the gold in the cargo hold of the train. Those keys are guarded by separate individuals—the dispatcher, Trent and Fowler. The dispatcher keeps his keys locked away at the train station. Fowler wears his around his neck, even while bathing. And the Lord only knows where the president of the bank, Trent, keeps his key. But, if Pierce can find the originals, Agar can make paraffin impressions of them, with the aim of making copies. But, they have to get the keys before they can even consider robbing the train.
It's a 19th century version of the "Mission: Impossible" scenario, with just as many opportunities for things to go wrong, and thus, for the team to improvise and change plans on the fly. To secure the keys, they must case the train-station and infiltrate the lives of the bank-men to learn where they keep them and to take them from them...if only for the few seconds it will take to make good impressions.
Because so much of the book consists of detailed descriptions of the action required to pull off the many elements of the heist, so much of the book deals with those actions. But five pages of description may take 15 seconds of presentation on film. So, as the wordless action takes place, it is buttressed by dialog scenes that may be the weakest part of the film, as Crichton—who also wrote the screenplay—loads the film with double and borderline single entendres that feel a bit out of place in stuffy Victorian England.
Connery was pursued for the starring role (Nick Nolte wanted it), but after reading the script found it "heavy" and turned it down. Asked to reconsider, he read the novel, met with Crichton and the script started changing to the point where Crichton described the difference: "The book was straight, factual. But the movie is going to be closer to farce."** Indeed, it is. Sometimes to the point of the farce of a "Carry On" film.
But, Connery—who made a career out of making the most of double entendres, manages to make the most of most of them (some would fall flat delivered by even the wittiest of actors).
But, where Connery becomes essential is in the tense depiction of the heist; while the train is running, Connery's Pierce must move from his first-class cabin at the front of the train to the safes in the storage cars at the rear. The only way he can do that without creating suspicion is by scrambling out of sight of the passengers on the outside of the train.
While out there, Pierce is buffeted by wind, choked by smoke—at one point director Crichton's hair was set alight from sparks being belched from the smoke-stack—and very nearly scraped off the train roof by bridges and other obstacles grazing the train along the track.*** And it's really Connery up there, doing the dangerous stunt work of the moving train. Reportedly, the star's wife, Micheline, was seriously miffed at seeing some of the dangerous work Connery did for the filmed robbery when she accompanied the star at the premier.
Connery's influence on Crichton during the filming can be seen in his future novels written afterwards; it seems like he was basing a character on the actor in every novel. You look at Alan Grant in his "Jurassic Park" (played by Sam Neill in Spielberg's film), Charles Munro in "Congo" (played by Ernie Hudson in Frank Marshall's film) and John Connor in "Rising Sun" (played by...Connery in Philip Kaufman's film) and you see the actor fitting neatly into each role based on Crichton's description.
The film boasts two very large sets which cost 10% of the film's budget of 6 million dollars—the rather amazing recreation of London's Strand  as well as a recreation of the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace sequence is enhanced by being photographed at night with some extraordinary lighting effects by master cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth.

It would prove to be Unsworth's second-to-last film assignment (he would die of a heart attack while filming Roman Polanski's Tess) and the film is dedicated to him ("His Friends Miss Him"). It's certainly emblematic of the diverse nature of his work, giving day-lit scenes a burnished quality of an oil painting and bringing out amazing details even in the darkest of circumstances. If Crichton had any weaknesses as a director, he was aided immeasurably by Unsworth's eye.
The Great Train Robbery also boasts a maniacally boisterous score by Jerry Goldsmith that woiuld fit into the "too-many-notes" school. In the same way that John Williams finds a proper rhythm for movies in his scores, Goldsmith always wrote to what the movie needed, rather than just enforcing what was on the screen. In this movie's case, it was to give a rather stately film with long-held shots more of the sensibility of a romp and providing a pell-mell momentum with more energy than even on oncoming train might provide.
It isn't perfect, but there are moments of grandeur (somewhat undercut by the farcical moments) in the telling of the tale and the technical aspects and in Connery's performance that more than make up for any descents into the sophomoric. It's certainly safe to say that it is Michael Crichton's best film.
Miriam: Do you ever tell anyone the truth?
Edward Pierce: The truth? The truth... no.

* It was called "The First Great Train Robbery" in Britain and Europe, owing to the notoriety of the more recent "Great Train Robbery" of 1963. When the book and the movie based on it were released in Europe it was under the title The First Great Train Robbery.

** The New York Times, January 28, 1979.

*** In his book of essays "Travels" Crichton tells the tale of the filming of The Great Train Robbery, where after one "take" filmed helicopter, Connery started roaring to anyone who would listen that the train was travelling much faster than the designated 35 miles per hour. Connery would not be convinced when told that the speed—determined by the train engineer by timing the space between passing poles—that the speed was what was indicated. But, the helicopter pilot, filming the "Icarus-eye-view" of the speeding train indicated that his air-speed to keep up with the train was actually about 55 mph! That was all it took to mollify the pleased Connery. He'd been right all along.

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