The Great Train Robbery

by Glenn Erickson Nov 14, 2023

Adventuresome crime generates high thrills in Michael Crichton’s entertaining heist picture, adapted from his own novel set in 1855. Charming crook Sean Connery, light-fingered ‘screwsman’ Donald Sutherland and saucy Lesley-Anne Down pull off a slick caper in the age of gaslight and Victorian elegance. The lavish production puts Connery through some incredible real-life stunts atop a moving train; the elegant music score is by Jerry Goldsmith. We always loved this one and welcome the opportunity to review Kino’s reissue Blu-ray.

The Great Train Robbery
KL Studio Classics
1978 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date June 13, 2023 / The First Great Train Robbery / Special Edition / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: 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, Donald Churchill, Brian Glover, Brooke Adams, Alan Gibbs, .
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Production Designer: Maurice Carter
Art Director: Bert Davey
Film Editor: David Bretherton, Peter Elliott
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Screenplay by Michael Crichton based on his novel
Presented by Dino De Laurentiis
Produced by John Foreman
Directed by
Michael Crichton

Before Michael Cimino blew United Artists to bits with his artistic finish to the era of the superstar director, United Artists was rolling the dice yearly on a full spectrum of adventurous entertainment, from kiddie pix to daring adult fare. On a roll with his imaginative genre films Westworld and Coma, best-selling novelist and screenwriter Michael Chrichton took on a lavish period production with top English talent — and delivered a terrific entertainment.

By early 1979, Star Wars was finally loosening its grip on U.S. theaters, leaving just enough wiggle room for something new. The Great Train Robbery (aka The First Great Train Robbery) is a complicated heist thriller in period dress. Unlike an Oscar winner from a few years before the period setting is used for more than stylish window dressing. ‘The Kids’ obsessed with light sabers weren’t likely to be intrigued by Crichton’s close attention to 1855 décor and detail — but that’s their loss. The reviewers that judge the show’s first half too fussy or too slow-paced need to recalibrate their Adderall dosage.

TGTR may not be quite the sure-footed classic that is Connery and Michael Caine’s adventure The Man Who Would Be King, but what is?  The show is both a superb crime thriller and an elegant valentine from the Victorian Era. Action fans that appreciate pre-CGI gymnastics will be knocked out by Sean Connery’s daring train-top stuntwork.


In 1855, railway trains had only been around for a couple of decades. Michael Crichton’s original novel was based on a real crime from that year, the first robbery ever from a moving train. Crichton’s historical research is as comprehensive as that for his Coma and The Andromeda Strain, which had exploited his deep knowledge of medicine. The movie retains many specifics of the real crime, adding lighter content and comedy mischief to better showcase its stars. Sean Connery’s master thief Edward Pierce is a charmer worthy of Arsene Lupin, a dapper conman who can pass himself off as an upperclass investor. Donald Sutherland has a field day as the eccentric Robert Agar, a streetwise pickpocket and safecracker. Agar’s muttonchop sideburns add a lot to his character — as does Sutherland’s schtick limbering up his hands in anticipation of light-fingered thievery.

The desired gold must be snatched from a pair of safes in a moving railway car. To obtain the impressions of four crucial keys, Edward Pierce’s confederates must pull off three clever burglaries. One mini-caper requires an amorous deception by Edward’s girlfriend Miss Miriam, a scene that Lesley-Anne Down plays to the hilt. Her bedroom scene with Connery is a steamy highlight. When Edward must court a woman to score another of the keys, Miriam can’t help but wonder what mischief Edward is up to. The unfunny comedy The Best House in London played up exotic lingerie from the Edwardian era, but Ms. Down makes them all look like amateurs, from her first naughty smirk forward.  

Only one other period recreation takes TGTR’s realistic attitude toward a high-stakes vintage heist, John Guillermin’s The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. The 1960 picture pits thief Aldo Ray against lawman Peter O’Toole — it’s nicely plotted, but hasn’t much of a sense of humor.


Most of The Great Train Robbery was filmed in Ireland. The physical recreation of 19th century London is truly impressive — street after full-dressed street is packed with costumed pedestrians. Geoffrey Unsworth’s camera gets terrific footage from set-piece after set-piece, in back alleys and grand gardens, even a fireworks show. We learn that a concourse at the Dublin Railway station was transformed for the movie. A vintage engine was re-dressed and an entire train was constructed, with cars carrying side decorations that mimic old stagecoaches.

None of these scenes is there just to be pretty. Director Crichton instead reenacts historical tableaux from his researches. At a nasty Rat-baiting competition, one of Edward’s targets bets that his prize terrier can kill 15 rats in three minutes. A cruel public hanging is depicted in a prison yard, with at least 500 bloodthirsty observers taunting the condemned woman as she climbs the scaffold.

Seen in passing is a bizarre stable-like business called a two-penny hangover. Homeless street people can rest there — standing up and leaning on ropes arrayed like clotheslines.    Crichton explains that some of the clients learned to sleep standing up.


The production also shows off impressive stuntwork, when Edward and Robert encourage the Queen’s prisoner Clean Willy to escape from gaol. Willy is played by the noted dancer Wayne Sleep, and we get to see him scale and surmount a wickedly spiked prison wall. He then uses his acrobatic burglary skills to help Robert purloin impressions of the final two keys.

Because it documents an actual famous robbery, English audiences may have taken Crichton’s show as the 1855 antecedent of the famed Great Train Robbery of 1963. It was commemorated in the excellent Peter Yates thriller Robbery, starring Stanley Baker and James Booth. It’s a professional but cold affair.

Securty changes force Edward Pierce’s robbery scheme to adjust at the last minute, and Agar and Miriam must improvise. Thus TGTR adheres to the classic caper template: the real test of thieves his how they perform when things go wrong. After an hour of strutting about like a dandy, Sutherland’s Agar must pretend to be a victim of cholera, and lie in a coffin with a dead cat that stinks to high heaven.  


Miriam: “Right here on the train?”

Banker: “Why not? Have you not heard of the ‘fifty mile an hour club?” I’m told it’s beneficial to the circulation.”

The train itself rockets through the beautiful Irish English countryside at 50 mph. Edward must climb on the roof to access the baggage car, and hang over the side to take care of a newly-locked door. The sequence is a heart-stopper — we can see that it is Sean Connery in person scrambling atop the railway cars hurtling at full speed.

The action doesn’t look cheated, and Edward is fully occupied to keep from falling off. Perhaps Connery’s train car had ‘catch baskets’ on both sides, and maybe there are wires we can’t see, but as far as we can tell, he REALLY IS UP THERE taking the risk as would an expert stuntman. It looks very dangerous.  


The train flies under a low bridge every few seconds. All Edward/Connery can do to keep from being smashed like a melon is to stay lower than the iron vents atop the train — which stick up less than two feet. The audience we saw this film with, applauded.

The scene demonstrates 100% what moviegoing has lost with the miraculous illusions of modern Computer Generated Imagery — now we don’t believe anything we see. Tom Cruise regularly plays complicated fight scenes atop moving trains, but our ‘suspension of disbelief’ is now completely different.

Michael Crichton exaggerated the actual train robbery for his 1975 book, and for the movie he further streamlines events. He also decided to give this more escapist romp a different ending. Edward is captured and convicted for his crimes. Always charmingly insolent, he cracks wise during the sentencing, reaping an unusually stiff sentence. Crichton then borrows the twist ending from the classic The Beggar’s Opera, the same trick dusted off for Cat Ballou and a dozen other lighthearted elegant-thief sagas. With Sean Connery’s big smile to show off, it works just fine.


Most of the period argot spoken by our knaves is refreshingly obscure-colorful:

“I’m the bloody fastest Screwsman you’ll ever see.”

“What’s your pogue up there, anyway?”

“If you’ve turned nose on me, I’ll see you in lavender.”

The only aspect of Crichton’s thriller that disappoints is some of the verbal comedy. In the course of his conman activities, Connery’s cad Edward trades some pretty juvenile double-entendre lines with a horny banker. He does the same with the mother of a woman he is mock-seducing — the mother would rather have him for herself. It’s a waste of good dialogue opportunities, and none of it is up to the sexy level of Edward’s playtime chats with Miriam. Crichton needed better dialogue to match the visual wit of his direction — the finished show has only a couple of quotable lines.



The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Great Train Robbery
may be the exact same encoding as from a previous disc, as it begins with an older MGM Home Video logo. We do get a card sleeve disc cover, useful for, ah, for covering the disc. We welcome the reissue because it gives us an opportunity to finally review this favorite show.

The disc image looks really good, with Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography a standout during the exciting train action, the handsome London street scenes and in Connery & Down’s cozy boudoir. The choice of lenses and blocking are excellent in the street scenes, which never give the impression of a studio backlot. We assume that several shots have been enhanced with matte paintings, but the direction minimizes their artificiality. We also appreciate Jerry Goldsmith’s lively, light-hearted music score, which keeps spirits high throughout.

A trailer is included, as is Michael Crichton’s audio commentary — he passed away in 2008. He shares his enthusiasm for the project, muses about his thoughts on how to pace a story, and explains much of the physical production that we’ve cited above. The always-imaginative Crichton came up with brilliant ways to rejuvenate earlier genres, even ones that weren’t taken seriously — space invasions, organ theft, a drug-fueled sci-fi maniac. Who else could think up such a quasi-credible rationale to bring prehistoric animals into the 20th century?

We’re sure that Crichton himself was aware of occasional anachronisms in The Great Train Robbery, allowed to slip through just to help the story along. We aren’t experts at that, and in fact thought the bullion train was going much too fast until we looked up train speeds of the 1850s. But at 13 minutes in we get an establishing night shot of a banker’s mansion as multiple lights are turned on inside, popping on in fast succession. They’re really bright, too. So somebody is flipping light switches, in 1855?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Great Train Robbery
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio Commentary by Michael Crichton
TV Spots
Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
November 12, 2023

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Katherine Turney

Always loved this movie, and I have had it on DVD for a long time. Upgrade!

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