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The First Great Train Robbery

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Title: The First Great Train Robbery  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Michael Crichton, Peter Butterworth, 1979 in film, Michael Elphick, Donald Hewlett
Collection: 1970S Crime Thriller Films, 1970S Historical Films, 1978 Films, 1979 Films, British Crime Thriller Films, British Films, British Historical Films, Edgar Award Winning Works, English-Language Films, Film Scores by Jerry Goldsmith, Films Based on Works by Michael Crichton, Films Directed by Michael Crichton, Films Produced by John Foreman (Producer), Films Set in the 1850S, Films Shot in the Republic of Ireland, Heist Films, Pinewood Studios Films, Rail Transport Films, Screenplays by Michael Crichton, True Crime Films, United Artists Films
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The First Great Train Robbery

The First Great Train Robbery
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Crichton
Produced by John Foreman
Screenplay by Michael Crichton
Based on The Great Train Robbery 
by Michael Crichton
Starring Sean Connery
Donald Sutherland
Lesley-Anne Down
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth
Edited by David Bretherton
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • 2 February 1979 (1979-02-02) (U.S.)
Running time
110 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $7 million[1]
Box office $13,027,857[2]

The First Great Train Robbery – known in the U.S. as The Great Train Robbery – is a 1979 film directed by Michael Crichton, who also wrote the screenplay based on his novel The Great Train Robbery. The film stars Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, and Lesley-Anne Down.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
    • Origins of the plot 3.1
    • Filming locations 3.2
    • Music 3.3
  • Reception 4
    • Accolades 4.1
  • References 5
  • External links 6


In 1854, Edward Pierce (Michael Elphick), is also bribed into participation. Pierce plans the robbery in exquisite detail, and procures information on the security measures and locations of the keys. The executives of the bank who store the gold and arrange its transport, Mr. Henry Fowler and Mr. Edgar Trent, each possess a key; the other two are locked in a cabinet at the offices of the South Eastern Railway at the London Bridge train station. The keys are not to be stolen, but wax impressions are to be made of them in order to hide the robbers' intentions.

Pierce's first target is the key held by Edgar Trent (Alan Webb). Through painstaking surveillance, Pierce learns that Trent is keen on ratting (a blood sport involving betting on dogs killing rats) and succeeds in becoming acquainted with him. While visiting the Trent mansion, Pierce begins to court Elizabeth (Gabrielle Lloyd), Trent's plain, rather-overaged-for-marriage daughter, and learns from her that the key is hidden in the house's wine cellar. Pierce and Agar successfully break into Mr. Trent's home at night by employing the carriage fakement and make a wax impression of the key.

Henry Fowler (Malcolm Terris) proves an easier target, due to his appetite for prostitutes. Pierce sets the reluctant, annoyed Miriam up as "Madame Lucienne," a high-class hooker in an exclusive bordello. Miriam meets Fowler in a suite and asks him to undress, during which process he must remove the key which he wears around his neck. While Fowler is distracted by Miriam, Agar secretly makes an impression of his key. Pierce simulates a police raid on the brothel before Miriam has to have sex with Fowler, which forces Fowler to then flee the scene of the 'raid' to avoid a scandal that would ruin him.

To access the two keys at the train station, Pierce and Agar first stage a diversion using a street urchin (who is also, as Pierce informs Agar, Agar's illegitimate son) as a pickpocket. The attempt fails. Pierce decides to use the cat burglar Clean Willy (Wayne Sleep) to open the office doors from within, so that Agar can access the keys when the guard stationed outside the dispatcher's office at night goes to the restroom. Since Clean Willy is currently incarcerated at Newgate Prison, Pierce uses the alias "John Simms" to send a message through Willy's former mistress. Pierce then assists him in escaping from Newgate while the public is distracted by an execution. With Willy's help, the criminals succeed in taking wax impressions of the keys.

As preparations for the robbery continue, the gang finds itself compromised: Clean Willy is arrested following a botched pickpocketing attempt and informs on Pierce. Willy attempts to lure Pierce into a trap under the pretense of asking him for more money, but the master cracksman easily eludes the coppers trying to catch him. Clean Willy also escapes from his captors but is murdered by Barlow on Pierce's orders before he can reveal his identity to the police. However, the authorities are now aware that a robbery of the Crimean gold is imminent. The police increase security by having the baggage car containing the two safes that hold the gold padlocked from the outside until the train arrives at its destination, and no passengers may travel in the guard's van. Further, any box or trunk large enough to hold a man must be opened and inspected before it is loaded on the train.

Undeterred, Pierce devises a way to smuggle Agar into the baggage car inside a coffin. Pierce plans to get to the car across the passenger coach roofs while the train is under way, but he and Miriam (who is posing as Agar's bereaved sister) encounter Fowler, who has decided to ride the train to Folkestone in order to watch over the shipment. After arranging for Miriam to travel with Fowler in the same compartment in order to divert his attention, Pierce crosses the roof of the train and unlocks the baggage van's door from the outside. He and Agar replace the gold with lead bars and toss the bags of gold off the train at a pre-arranged point. Soot from the engine's smoke stains Pierce's clothes, however, and he is forced to borrow Agar's suit, which is much too small for him. The jacket splits across the back when he disembarks at Folkstone. The police quickly recognize him as a suspect and arrest him before he can rejoin his accomplices outside the station.

Pierce is tried for the robbery. As he exits the courthouse, he receives the adulation of the poorer British masses, who consider him a folk hero for his daring act. In the midst of the hubbub, a disguised Miriam kisses him while slipping him a key to his handcuffs. Agar is also present, disguised as the Black Maria's driver. As Pierce is about to be shoved into the wagon, he frees himself and escapes in the Black Maria to the jubilation of the crowd and the chagrin of the police detectives who captured him.



Film rights to the novel were bought in 1975 by Dino de Laurentiis.[3] In 1977 it was announced the film would be made in Ireland by American International Pictures with Sean Connery and Jacqueline Bisset.[4]

Crichton deliberately varied the movie from his book. He said "the book was straight, factual but the movie is going to be close to farce."[1]

Sean Connery originally turned down the movie after reading the script, judging it "too heavy". He was asked to reconsider, read the original novel, met Crichton, and changed his mind.[5]

Sean Connery performed most of his own stunts in the film, including the extended sequence on top of the moving train.[6] The train was composed of an original locomotive from 1855 and coaches that were made for the movie from railway flat carriages. Connery was told that the train would travel at only 20 miles per hour during his time on top of the cars. However, the train crew used an inaccurate means of judging the train's speed. The train was actually doing speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour. Connery wore soft rubber soled shoes and the roofs of the carriages were covered with a sandy, gritty surface. Connery actually slipped and nearly fell off the train during one jump between two carriages, and had difficulty keeping his eyes free of smoke and cinders from the locomotive.[7]

One error can be seen in the Bateson's Belfry sequence. When the lid is wrenched off the casket and Lesley-Anne Down bends in to pull out her "brother," Donald Sutherland's eyes twitch from left to right.

Origins of the plot

The film's plot is loosely based on the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, in which a cracksman named William Pierce engineered the theft of a trainload of gold being shipped to the British Army during the Crimean War.[1] The gold shipment of £12,000 (equal to £1,001,545 today, USD$1,281,550, or €930,143) in gold coin and ingots from the London-to-Folkestone passenger train was stolen by Pierce and his accomplices, a clerk in the railway offices named Tester, and a skilled screwsman named Agar. The robbery was a year in the planning and involved making sets of duplicate keys from wax impressions for the locks on the safes, and bribing the train's guard, a man called Burgess.[8]:210 Crichton, the author of the book and the screenplay, was inspired by Kellow Chesney's 1970 book The Victorian Underworld, which is a comprehensive examination of the more sordid aspects of Victorian society.

In his screenplay Crichton based his character "Clean Willy" Williams on another real-life character from Chesney's book, a housebreaker named Williams (or Whitehead) who, sentenced to death in Newgate Prison, escaped from prison by climbing the 15-meter (50-ft.) tall sheer granite walls, squeezing through the revolving iron spikes at the top, and climbing over the inward projecting sharp spikes above them before making his escape over the roofs.[8]:187 The only completely fictional character in the movie is Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down).

Filming locations

Although set in London and Kent, most of the filming took place in Ireland. In particular, the final scenes were filmed in Trinity College, Dublin[9] and Kent railway station in Cork. The scenes on the moving train were filmed on the Mullingar to Athlone railway line (now closed) around the Castletown Geoghan area. The train driver was John Byrne from Mullingar (now deceased).


The film's lavish, energetic soundtrack was written by Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith. The score marked his third collaboration with writer/director Michael Crichton following Pursuit (1972) and Coma (1978). The music for two pianos, played by the characters Elizabeth (Gabrielle Lloyd) and Emily Trent (Pamela Salem) is from the third movement of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448 Molto Allegro.


The Great Train Robbery has a critical rating of 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.[10] The site's critics praised the film's comedic tone, action sequences, and Victorian details. Variety wrote that "Crichton's film drags in dialog bouts, but triumphs when action takes over."[11] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times singled out Connery, writing that the actor "is one of the best light comedians in the movies, and has been ever since those long-ago days when he was James Bond."[12] Vincent Canby of The New York Times praised director Crichton's " this visually dazzling period piece,"[13] and that "the climactic heist of the gold, with Mr. Connery climbing atop the moving railroad cars, ducking under bridges just before a possible decapitation, is marvelous action footage that manages to be very funny as it takes your breath away."[13]


  • Edgar Award, Best Motion Picture Screenplay, 1980 — Michael Crichton


  1. ^ a b c Owen, Michael (28 Jan 1979). "Director Michael Crichton Films a Favorite Novelist". New York Times. p. D17. 
  2. ^ The Great Train Robbery at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ Thomas, Bob (21 Sep 1975). "Movies: Director Dino hits the shores of America". Chicago Tribune. p. e16. 
  4. ^ Fitzsimons, Godfrey (10 Jun 1977). "Hollywood company to make $5m. film here". The Irish Times. p. 13. 
  5. ^ Sterritt, David (3 Apr 1979). "Sean Connery: Ex-Milkman with a Famous Face". Christian Science Monitor. p. B24. 
  6. ^ Mann, Roderick (19 Dec 1978). "The Diagnoses of Dr. Crichton". Los Angeles Times. p. f16. 
  7. ^ Bray, Christopher (2011). Sean Connery: A Biography. New York: Pegasus.  
  8. ^ a b  
  9. ^ David Ingoldsby. "The Great Train Robbery (1978)". Shot at Trinity. Trinity College Dublin. Retrieved 20 May 2015. 
  10. ^ "The Great Train Robbery (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2 July 2014. 
  11. ^ "'"Review: 'The First Great Train Robbery. Variety. 31 Dec 1978. 
  12. ^  
  13. ^ a b  

External links

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