Thursday 12 November 2020

The Underappreciated: The First Great Train Robbery

A very occasional series, the purpose of which is to highlight films that are really underappreciated, and that you might get a kick out of viewing. Today, a late Seventies offering from the late Sean Connery.

I've been meaning to write about this film, as part of my Underappreciated series, for a long time, but just haven't got around to it. Well now Sean Connery has died, I really had better get myself in gear. Not that I would imagine for one minute he was waiting for me to write about him...

But anyway, in the wake of his passing it would be all too easy to write about Connery as Bond, his Oscar-winning turn in The Untouchables, The Man Who Would Be King, all the rest... I don't think I've seen anyone mention The First Great Train Robbery in their tributes though, and that's a real shame because it is an absolute cracker!

Connery plays Edward Pierce, charismatic man about London town and master thief. He plans to steal a shipment of gold meant to finance the Crimean War effort... from a moving train. But Pierce, much like Charlie Croker, Danny Ocean and countless others, needs a team to carry this off. His mistress Miriam, wonderfully played by Lesley-Anne Down, is first on-board, swiftly followed by master pickpocket and screwsman Agar (Donald Sutherland). Pierce's chauffeur is also in on the deal, and a train guard is bribed too. Essential to the plot is the recruitment of "Clean" Willy, played by a young Wayne Sleep - Willy is a snakesman, a cat burglar basically. He meets a sticky end too, but that's bordering on a spoiler, so I'll shut up and show you the very-much-of-its-time trailer:

So what makes this so good? What, apart from the starry cast, boys' own plot, crisp script (written and directed by Michael Crichton), Jerry Goldsmith's cracking score and a wonderful cinematic evocation of Victorian London? Aside from all that, you mean? It's even a Dino De Laurentis production, for goodness' sake, and if that doesn't give you a Proustian rush I don't know what will.

But more than that, I get a sense from this film that no-one put a foot wrong making it; everyone, from Connery right down to the minor players, is on form. I also get a sense that the cast had fun making this, and why not? This is a script shot through with humour, and with plenty of opportunity to make the most, in comic asides, of Victorian versions of modern tropes (like the 100mph Club, rather than the Mile High Club). Oh, and playboy Pierce gets to play innuendo bingo, in a scene that could be right out of Carry On:

And whilst this film is, like any good caper, primarily terrific fun, there are darker moments too... so sod spoilers, here's that moment when Clean Willy gets his comeuppance for turning snitch on Pierce and his well-tailored crew:

And there's so much more! Lesley-Anne Down's Miriam adopting multiple personae, Donald Sutherland's turn in a coffin, Clean Willy's jailbreak, the acquisition of the safe keys (one of which features the longest 75 seconds in cinematic history!), the robbery itself, the denouement... I could go on. But I won't, other than to say if you're a bit fed up with Lockdown II (The Corona Strikes Back) and have exhausted your box-sets, well, do yourself a favour, put the heating on, get comfy in your favourite chair and watch this instead - it's terrific! It's on Netflix and Prime Video for starters. I saw one reviewer call this the best Sean Connery film you've never seen, and he's right... but you can remedy your oversight right now...


  1. Great film. Sadly, it rarely appears on TV these days.

    1. Which is surprising, given the number of channels and how often they seem to recycle their listings, showing the same films over and over.