At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Great Train Robbery “78”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Great Train Robbery “78”

MPAA Rating: PG/Genre: Heist Comedy/Stars: Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Lesley-Anne Down, Alan Webb, Malcolm Terris, Robert Lang, Michael Elphick, Wayne Sleep, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd, George Downing, James Cossins, André Morell, Peter Benson, Janine Duvitski, Peter Butterworth, Brian Glover, Geoffrey Ferris/Runtime: 110 minutes

I think it can safely be said that while it is always a tragedy when we lose a member of the movie magic community for whatever reason, it is perhaps even more heartbreaking when that individual is a longstanding member of the community in question. Not that it hasn’t been tragic when we have lost people like Heath Ledger, Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee, Paul Walker, Chadwick Boseman, James Dean, John Belushi, River Phoenix, or even Anton Yelchin to name but a few examples. Rather, it’s that while the loss of those examples and others like them is one best described as “what their cinematic legacy could’ve been whilst still honoring the body of work they did leave us”, the loss of someone like Betty White, Sean Connery, Christopher Plummer, Tom Wilkinson, or even Burt Reynolds is more one that can be described as “the cinematic legacy that they are leaving behind for audiences all over the world to treasure for generations to come”. The reason I bring this up dear reader is because here recently the filmgoing community was rocked by another tragedy in the latter category with the loss of film icon Donald Sutherland. A man who, besides having acted consistently for a solid 6 decades, was also a talent who was known for different things for the different generations who got to see his undeniable skill at work. Indeed, among the many other roles he brought to life, for people in the 70s he was the zany professor in Animal House, for people of the 80s he was the loving father in Ordinary People, for people of the 90s he was the all-knowing yet enigmatic informant known simply as “X” in Oliver Stone’s JFK, and for people of my generation he was the coldly tyrannical yet brutally honest with a bit of a white rose obsession President Coriolanus Snow in the adaptations of The Hunger Games books from writer Susanne Collins. Yet when you have the undeniably impressive cinematic resume that someone like Mr. Sutherland had, there is something else about it that is also undeniable. That being that there are going to be slices of cinema that you acted in which are really good yet, for whatever reason, sadly fall under the radar either right away or as time goes on. I say this dear reader because among Mr. Sutherland’s resume there is at least one that I feel definitely deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated for the undeniable gem that it truly is. That being the 1978 slice of cinema, and film I happen to be reviewing for you today incidentally, The Great Train Robbery. Yes the film is very much a period piece which, for those who like the movies set in a more modern setting, can be a bit of a detractor and no it is by no means a perfect effort. Even so though, there is also no denying that with solid work on both sides of the camera 1978’s The Great Train Robbery is still one delightful cinematic caper that those who can get onboard with it are sure to enjoy time and time again.

The plot is as follows: Based on both an actual incident as well as a 1975 book of the same name by Michael Crichton, The Great Train Robbery gets underway by taking us to jolly ol’ London in the long-ago year of 1855 where we are quickly given a plot-important history lesson. It seems that once a month a shipment of that highly sought-after prize known as gold is sent on a train from London to Folkestone in order to pay those brave men engaged in that distinct skirmish known as the Crimean War. Naturally, the people behind this shipment aren’t the kind of people who would just leave the gold lying about for anyone to just come along and pilfer (that would just make things way too easy after all) and instead have devised quite the intricate set-up in order to ensure its protection from the various members that make up the London Crime Country Club (or the London criminal element if you prefer). A set-up which involves placing the gold under strict guard in a pair of giant (and fairly weighty) safes that both have a pair of locks which can only be unlocked by a quartet of distinct keys. These keys incidentally, and for what it’s worth, are not held by anyone singular individual. Instead, at least a pair of the keys are kept under fairly constant observation in a cabinet at an office belonging to the South Eastern Railway that happens to be located at the rail station where the gold is shipped out from whilst the other two keys have been entrusted into the loving care and protection of both the manager and the president of the bank in charge of transporting the gold in the first place respectively. In other words: this is one heist which (for 1855 at any rate) would seem to be all but impossible and more likely to get one either killed or imprisoned than awarded with any gold for their troubles. Yet whereas a great many have tried by the time our story gets underway, with even the latest “attempt” being talked about at a social club of sorts, there is one who might actually have the potential to be successful where all these others have failed. That one, incidentally, happens to be our rather morally dubious hero and who takes the form of a man by the name of Edward Pierce. A man who, upon first blush, may seem like the kind of guy who seems more at home mixing and mingling with the upper crust of high society in London, but who in reality is a master thief who for his next job would love to get his hands on that gold. In order to do so, we quickly see that Pierce assembles a crew including a master pickpocket/safe-cracker named Robert Agar, his mistress Miriam, his driver Barlow, and even a train guard named Burgess to help him put the various facets of his plan into motion. Thus can our master thief and his associates triumph in getting their hands on the gold or is this plan one that’s destined to go off the rails just like all the others? That I will leave for you to discover….

Now right off it should be noted that the work done by the various departments behind the camera is fairly well-done even if there are at the very least a couple of hurdles that it does have a wee bit of difficulty in overcoming at times throughout this slice of cinema’s 110-minute, including credits, runtime. This starts with the work done in the director’s chair by Michael Crichton, who was also both the author of the source material that the film is based on and the writer of the screenplay for this cinematic adaptation of his own novel, and honestly he doesn’t do a terrible job here in either of his roles behind the camera. To be sure, there are those who are going to see this movie and view it as nothing more than a Victorian-era take on the iconic cinematic caper The Sting from 1973 and to be fair that isn’t the worst comparison in the world (being compared to Sting II on the other hand….). On top of that, it should be pointed out that there are moments here and there where not only is the pacing just a bit off, but also where it appears someone took a shovel to the plot and started digging a bit too much for their own good due to the presence of some decent size holes within the narrative. Even with such detriments in mind however, there is no denying that in the case of the latter this is most assuredly the kind of movie that is aware that there are things you could easily nitpick on it about and instead is just aiming to be a film that you just go into with the intent of just having a relaxing and fun time watching. As for the former, we see that Crichton is able to navigate through these obstacles fairly successful thanks in large part to possessing a wonderful eye for detail with respect to the film capturing the world of Victorian-era England phenomenally well in seemingly every facet imaginable right down to spot-on costume work from Anthony Mendelson and ear for dialogue especially the vernacular that is being utilized by the old school criminal element that he is inviting us to spending time with here (even if there are quite a few moments where you might find yourself a bit lost and trying to desperately thumb through the dictionary or activating Google Translate before the next wrinkle in the heist unfolds). Suffice it to say that it’s not the best work done by someone operating as both director/writer on a film, but trust me when I say that it’s definitely not the worst either. Along with the work on both of those cinematic fronts by Crichton, this film also features a top-flight musical accompaniment from iconic composer Jerry Goldsmith (1979’s Alien and 1976’s The Omen among many other memorable titles). Indeed not only does Goldsmith’s work here perfectly capture for us the era in which the story is set, but it also proves to be an equal blend of elegance, energetic, and captivating that ensures this film is as much a treat for the ears as it is for the eyes. Suffice it to say that when you also manage to incorporate some truly stunning work done by the legendary Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1972’s Cabaret, and 1978’s Superman among others) in the cinematography department and fairly skilled editing work from David Bretherton it’s clear this film might not be flawless, but the work done behind the camera is nevertheless more than capable at ensuring it chugs along as intended.

Alongside the fairly well-done work behind the camera, this cinematic caper is also blessed with wonderful work in front of the camera by a truly impeccable cast of talent. Without a doubt in my mind, this starts with the work done by screen icon Sean Connery in the lead role and this is easily one of his more underrated performances. Yes it should come as no surprise to learn that Connery brings the suaveness, style, and in one particular conversation a collection of wonderfully witty double entendres that he more than capably brought to the role of a certain famous British superspy who he had finished *officially* playing about 6 years prior with Diamonds Are Forever. At the same time however, Connery also does a terrific job at bringing a sly and cunning vibrance, resourcefulness, and even sheer audacity to the role, especially in regards to the outright perilous as well as jaw-droppingly impressive stunt work he did on this film, that makes him a character that you can’t help but admire and respect to say nothing of cheer on and hope that he is ultimately successful in pulling this ingenious plot of his off. Equally as impressive as Connery is in this slice of cinema would have to be the delightful performance given by fellow screen legend Donald Sutherland in the role of pickpocket/safecracker extraordinaire Agar. Indeed Sutherland was always a delight whenever he showed up in something and here is most assuredly no different as we see that he does a terrific job at, rocking some seriously impressive muttonchops aside, bringing a wonderful degree of eccentricity, more than a hint of unashamed sleaziness, and even a dash of wry comedy to the role in such a way that he and Connery manage to play off each incredibly well here. Indeed it’s another winning turn from a screen icon who managed to give us as movie goers quite a few during his lengthy yet undeniably impressive career and it really is a shame that he and Connery didn’t ever make another film together. As incredible as our dynamic duo of Connery and Sutherland are here however, they are matched incredibly well by the third member in their crime crew in the form of a delightful performance from Lesley-Anne Down as Pierce’s mistress Miriam. Indeed not only do Down and Connery have a chemistry here that is genuinely delightful, but we see that Down also does a terrific job of managing to contribute a charm, cleverness, and even fearlessness to a character that is thankfully by no means delegated to just merely being the stereotypical damsel in distress of the story. Rather, the film does a terrific job of ensuring that she is instead someone who can handle her own amongst the boys especially when it comes to the utilization of her feminine charm to help them in the acquiring of information that they desperately need in order to ensure the potential success of the plan. Suffice it to say it’s a truly engaging turn from an actress that I must admit I am surprised never became a bigger star in the world of cinema despite becoming quite successful for a spell in the realm of television thanks to her work on a little show known as The Bold and the Beautiful. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in winning work from such performers as Malcolm Terris (1982’s The Bounty), Michael Elphick (1983’s Gorky Park), and Alan Webb among others it’s clear this film might have some issues, but the work done by the cast definitely does what it can to keep it on the right track.

All in all and at the end of the day is The Great Train Robbery from 1978 an utterly flawless slice of cinema in every single way possible? Sadly no, but honestly not every movie is one that needs to be that. Having said that, is this the worst slice of cinema in Sean Connery or Donald Sutherland’s respective filmographies to say nothing of the films out there that deal in some way with trains? Honestly if that is what you think then 2003’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fool’s Gold from 2008, 1985’s Revolution, and 2000’s Thomas and the Magic Railroad would all very much like to have a word with you and in all honesty I can’t promise you, as much as I would like to, that will be a pleasant conversation to have to endure by any stretch of the imagination. All sarcastic comments aside dear reader, it is worth noting that I really do dig the heck out of 1978’s take on The Great Train Robbery. To be sure, the pacing can be a bit off at times and the plot has more than its fair share of holes to it once you really start to analyze it. With that being said however, the work done behind the camera is fairly well done at both bringing us into as well as faithfully recreating the Victorian-era world of the film and the work done in front of the camera by a game and impeccably chosen cast of performers (with particular regard to the performances provided by Connery, Sutherland, and Down) all manage to be a sheer and absolute delight no matter how big or small their amount of screentime in the grand scheme of things may be. Suffice it to say then that it might not be perfect, but nevertheless The Great Train Robbery “78” is a solid, engaging, and just plain fun little cinematic caper that you are sure to enjoy time and time again. Just promise me you won’t try any of the stunts depicted in the film which take place onboard a moving train. Trust me when I say that your common sense, your bank account, your ability to walk around without a cast, and above all I, the writer of this review will be most appreciative of you choosing not to do so. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Great Train Robbery “78” a solid 3.5 out of 5.




1 Comment

  1. Ann

    Dear Writer, I heartily approve of your choice for memorializing Mr. Sutherland. The slice of cinema provided a round house of activity that often stopped you in your tracks. Meanwhile the combinations of innuendo and euphemism sped on by as Mr. Pierce ran his unfortunate cast of stoolies down the line. Oh, I loved the heck out of the orchestra accompaniment, the chase scenes kept you on edge. Was it excellent? I don’t know, but it made for an enjoyable afternoon stop. Thanks for the suggestion 🙂

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