Friday, June 19, 2015

Movie Review - The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery
Based on the book by Michael Crichton
Starring: Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Lesley-Anne Down, Alan Webb, Malcolm Terris, Robert Lang, Michael Elphick, Wayne Sleep, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd, George Downing, and James Cossins
Release Date: February 2nd, 1979
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Edward Pierce is planning to steal the Crimean Gold shipment. Despite the need of finding and duplicating four keys to get into the two Chubb safes on the London to Folkestone train, the true challenge is that no one has ever stolen anything from a moving train. With the help of his old friend and screwsman Agar and his lady Miriam, they slowly acquire the knowledge of the keys locations and plan on how to copy them. Pierce is willing to go to any length; be it pimping out Miriam, seducing spinsters, betting on dogs in ratting matches, breaking men out of Newgate prison, dead cats, house breaking, and murder, nothing will stop Pierce succeeding in his quest for the gold. Whatever obstacle that is thrown in his path he will find some way to circumvent or eliminate it. The Police themselves couldn't stop this even if they tried, and they have tried; because as Pierce said at his trial, "I wanted the money."

Because of the success of Jurassic Park in the early nineties, most of the adaptations of Crichton's books occurred after that milestone. Crichton's back catalog was rife for the plundering in the hopes of finding the next big hit. The sad fact is Jurassic Park was a bit of an anomaly, with the quality of the adaptations and their box office revenue steeply declining. Every one of the adaptations was trying to emulate the success of Jurassic Park and this often led to absurd additions and bad robotic apes. The adaptations rarely stayed true to the books which made my discovery of The Great Train Robbery that much more exciting. I would in fact go so far as to say of all the Crichton adaptations this captures the book it's based on best while translating it to another medium. This should be of little surprise because Crichton wrote the screenplay and directed it as well, but sometimes it is amazing how blind authors are to creating the best movie versus slavishly sticking to their book. But beyond all that, The Great Train Robbery doesn't feel as if it was made to be a blockbuster, it was made to be a great film and because quality was chosen over kitsch it stands up over time.

What I love about The Great Train Robbery is that an American writer was somehow able to make a quintessentially British Film. Yes, a great deal has to do with the casting, but it goes beyond that. The pace, the sets, the dialogue, the very fiber of the film exudes England. Perhaps this is why the movie works? I've never really thought about this, but the majority of Crichton's films are so American in their way, in other words, out to get the big bucks. The truth is that America doesn't hold the exclusive rights to making movies, despite how much Hollywood might control the global marketplace. Some of the best films, the films of truly high quality, come from outside the system. Now, I wouldn't quality this film as art house cinema, because it doesn't have that feel. But does anyone else find it weird that in this day and age art house cinema is coming to mean more and more a quality film versus something with superheroes? So, if we go by that definition, yes, it is art house. It's unabashedly British with true quality and with a quirky vibe reminiscent of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and I loved every minute of it.

There is a truth universal to my life and that is British films of the 60s and 70s are a comfort to me. Being raised in the 80s I spent my Sundays with my grandparents watching British television shows and movies from the previous decades on PBS. My parents raised me on movies like The Wrong Box and instilled in me a love of Upstairs, Downstairs. All these shows had a distinct look, a way that they denoted the Victorian time period, with bright colors and garish wallpaper patterns. Just from set design you can pick out a British film of this time period with relative ease. In fact, when did we decide, as a collective whole, that the Victorian period was more sedate? Did the love of pastels in the eighties make us forget that just maybe the seventies color schemes were right and that maybe, just maybe, movies like The Great Train Robbery depicted this bygone age better? Whatever the cause for the change, when I see these colors on screen I'm a little kid again sitting around working on puzzles of Victorian Dollhouses and all is right in the world. It's like a happy pill or a sedative, just start playing the fun music and look at the wallpaper and contentedly sigh.

The one thing that Crichton did do in his adaptation is that instead of doing a serious heist he went for more the comedy/farce angle and I think this really pays off. There's an infectious joy that permeates the film which is completely captured in Sean Connery's roguish grins. This movie shares a spirit animal with The Wrong Box and has the madcap zaniness that is the hallmark of the best British films of this time period. The only thing I do question though is sometimes Crichton's overt us of sexual innuendos falls horrendously flat. The young Mrs. Trent flirting with Connery as Pierce works to an extent because her character is obviously a woman of the world trapped in a loveless marriage. But it's the subtler "bolts" and "screws" while talking about the faux ruin that works, when erections come into it, that's a shade too far. I like that the film doesn't desexualize Victorians as has happened over time, but talk of the train heist arousing Connery more then his paramour... a shade too far.

Though the truth is everything in this films comes down to Sean Connery. And in particular Sean Connery on that train. More and more films don't allow their stars to do stunts. Usually its insurance related. But the sad fact is that this takes something away from the film. Whether it's the bad body double in a loose wig or just a shot where you can obviously see it's not the actor, something is lost. Films are stories that rely on a suspension of disbelief on our part and gaffs with stuntmen and women take us out of the story. Even recently watching the new version of Far from the Madding Crowd I was distracted whenever the camera zoomed out to show Bathsheba riding her horse along the clifftops. It was clearly not Carey Mulligan. And this little slice of reality came in and took away some of the magic of the film. Let's then look to the awesomeness of Sean Connery. The character of Pierce, for obvious dramatic reasons versus the more practical reason of a lock on the outside of the guard van, has to go along the top of a moving train. Connery did this. Sean Connery ran along the top of a moving train! It doesn't get more badass then that! Come for the comedy, stay for Sean Connery proving that even if his name isn't Bond anymore, he's still just as badass as Bond.


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