The Day They Robbed the Bank of England
It’s 1901 and Irish rebels want to give one in the eye to the Brits by robbing England’s most prestigious bank. (You need a reference to open an account!) As the great Hugh Griffith puts it, “One hundred thousand pounds is a felony. A million pounds is a political statement.” So they bring in Aldo Ray, an American mining and architecture expert, to see if it can be done. And it can, but it ain’t easy. It involves finding an old sewer that has long been blocked off but runs under the bank, and then tunneling for 48 hours over a bank holiday weekend to get under the vault and then cutting through the steel floor. Before that they must access the closely guarded plans, take meticulous measurements to be sure they come up in the sealed vault and not in the rest of the basement, which is crawling with guys in those ridiculous tall bearskin hats.
To get a look at the basement, Aldo has to get chummy with the captain of the guards, who is played by a very young Peter O’Toole. This is only his second movie role, and is said to be the one David Lean saw that led to his fourth movie role two years later, the one that instantly made him a star: T.E. Lawrence. He is striking. I can see what Lean saw in him, though it must have been a real gamble to put such a major role in the hands of an unknown. O’Toole, of course, delivered everything that was asked of him, and much more.
But all that hardship aside, the real obstacle to overcome was one Walsh, played by Kieron Moore, one of the three men doing all the planning and hard work. Walsh is one of those guys for whom every plan is a rotten plan, every idea a stupid idea, and who is ready at any point to give up and go home. He expresses all these things vehemently every chance he gets. He’s a total pessimist and a quitter, probably because he’s secretly terrified inside, and if I had been planning this heist the first thing I’d have done would be to drop him in the Thames with concrete boots on. It was absolutely certain that, when the screw-up came, he would be the cause of it. As such, I was a little pissed at the screenwriter for writing him so negative, so stupid, when he could have split him into two or three characters who could express doubts and fears here and there, and thus make it not so damn obvious who the weak link was. I mean, I’d sooner engage in a robbery with two three-legged corgis tied to my feet as bring this asshole along.
Other than that, though, it’s a first-rate job all around. The plan is good, and we see every detailed step of it. The execution is tough, but possible. And at the end it becomes a race against the clock as O’Toole has become suspicious … and can’t do a damn thing about it, as the vault requires no less than three keys, each held by a different man, one of whom is far away and hard to find. One of those security measures that probably looked good at the time, but in retrospect makes it damn hard to even open the door to the Queen’s tons of bullion to see if it’s all there.