Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Great Train Robbery


I really love heist movies, and this is one of my favorites. In addition to being an ingenious and tense caper, it has the added bonus of happening in Victorian England, and explores some of the odder parts of the culture of those strange times. Have you ever heard of ratting? It was a popular form of gambling, where a terrier was thrown into a pit with a lot of rats and bets were laid on how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. There are many other little bits like this, all of them accurate. Just look at those stove-pipe hats, well over a foot tall!

The story is based on a real robbery that happened in 1855, when no one believed a moving train could be robbed. Remember, this was a new technology, the trains moved much faster than any means of human transport before that time. The speeds involved were horrifying: more than 50 miles per hour, sometimes, on good track! How could you do such a thing? Well, this version is jazzed up, the real operation was a lot simpler, but that’s okay. Nothing strains credulity. One reason is that Sean Connery can be observed, doing his own stunts on top of that train. It is probably the most hair-raising stunt work I’ve ever seen from an actor, and couldn’t be done these days because no one would insure it. And, of course, we see much more hair-raising stuff today, but it’s all performed in front of a green screen, safe as hopscotch.

The movie is well-written, Michael Crichton adapting and directing his own excellent novel, and produced by my old friend John Foreman. John confirmed to me a story you can read about at the IMDb. Connery spent several days walking, running, and crawling around on top of the train, which was supposed to be going 35 miles per hour. He kept complaining that it felt a lot faster than that. The engineer said no, it’s 35. But how are you calculating that? There’s no speedometer! (Trains seldom had one.) Turns out he was using the old method of counting telegraph poles, and they were a lot farther apart than he thought. The helicopter pilot confirmed that the train was doing 55! The antique engine that you see wasn’t capable of that speed. The only reason they could run it that fast was that one of the cars you see is really a fake, surrounding a diesel engine. John said this was one of the most fun movies he ever made, everybody had a great time on the sets (mostly in Dublin), wearing the silly costumes. In addition to a great performance by Connery, Donald Sutherland and Leslie-Anne Down are very good. See this one.