Release Date(s)1978 (June 13, 2023)
Studio(s)Starling Films/United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
The Great Train Robbery (aka The First Great Train Robbery) occupies a unique place in the filmography of Michael Crichton, providing the answer to an otherwise obscure trivia question. Counting films like The Carey Treatment that were based on books that he had written pseudonymously, he’s had a grand total of thirteen novels adapted for the screen (to date, anyway). In his somewhat less prolific career as a director, he helmed six feature films before his untimely death in 2008. Yet for whatever reason, The Great Train Robbery was the only time that he ever adapted one of his own books. (To be fair, he did also direct the made-for-television movie Pursuit based on one of his pseudonymous novels, so that one may actually be the ultimate in Crichton trivia.) He was certainly a competent craftsman behind the camera, and many of his books were written with screen adaptations in mind, so it’s interesting that he generally avoided mixing the two spheres (pun intended) of his artistic career. Regardless, The Great Train Robbery remains as a vivid reminder that his gift for constructing entertaining narratives was matched by his skills at marshaling complex productions like this.
The Great Train Robbery has an equally complex story filled with twists and turns, with the intrepid antiheroes having to constantly make adjustments on the fly in order to overcome unexpected obstacles. Crichton’s cinematic adaptation does make necessary changes to streamline and simplify the book’s narrative in order to fit into a two-hour feature film, but it still retains that essential character. He based his story on the “Great Gold Robbery” of 1855, although a few key details like the misadventures on top of the train were more likely inspired by the “Great Western Mail Robbery” of 1849. In any case, while Crichton did base his story on historical peoples and events, it’s still largely a work of fiction. He cleverly disguised that fact in the book by borrowing a technique that he had used for The Andromeda Strain: dressing everything up with simulated documentary detail. The Great Train Robbery claims to have been based on transcripts from the real-life trials, but Crichton mistakenly believed that they no longer existed, so he pretty much just made everything up instead. The documentary style helped to disguise the chicanery, granting everything a façade of verisimilitude.
While the Robert Wise adaption of The Andromeda Strain retained some of those trappings, Crichton elected to discard them for his cinematic version of The Great Train Robbery in favor of a more straightforward telling of the tale. Edward Pierce (Sean Connery) is a master thief who has carefully insinuated himself into English high society in order to plan the theft of a shipment of gold intended to support the Crimean War. To pull off this unprecedented rail heist, he’ll need to acquire copies of four different keys held by four different gentlemen. So, he enlists the help of his chameleon-like seductress girlfriend Miriam (Leslie-Ann Down), master pickpocket/screwsman Agar (Donald Sutherland), the slippery snakesman Clean Willy (Wayne Sleep), and a confederate on the inside of the train (Micheal Elphick). Nothing is ever as easy as it seems, so by the time they put together the pieces of the puzzle, they’ll have to use all of their wits (and their dexterity) in order to make it to the end of the line. The Great Train Robbery also stars Alan Webb, Malcolm Terris, and Robert Lang (watch for a young Brian Glover as the barker during the ratting scene).
While all of their intricate machinations to obtain the four keys takes up the majority of The Great Train Robbery’s running time, the rail heist at the end is unquestionably the centerpiece of the film. It’s a remarkable sequence, greatly enhanced by the fact that Sean Connery did all of his own stunt work. Actors doing their own stunts have become a major selling point for studios these days, but the reality is that the advent of CGI has made it much easier for them to do so safely. Wires, padding, and other safety gear can easily be removed digitally, and even Tom Cruise has benefited from much more CGI than studio marketing departments will ever be willing to admit. While Cruise and his co-stars did get on top of a real train in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, much of the backgrounds and even the trains themselves ended up being replaced digitally. The actors were often the only real elements in an otherwise digital world.
Not so with Sean Connery in The Great Train Robbery. He was kicking it old-school, Jean-Paul Belmondo style, without the benefit of a digitally removed net to catch him if he fell. While there’s a visible safety line attached to Wayne Sleep with his own impressive stunt work during the escape from Newgate Prison, the nature of the action that Connery was performing generally precluded the use of wires. (The only point where he may have been cabled down was when he’s hanging on the edge of the train after having nearly been knocked off of it.) Worse, due to a miscalculation on the part of the amateur railroad enthusiasts who were driving the train, it was traveling at speeds of up to 55mph instead of the 30-35mph that had been planned. As a result, the whole sequence ended up being far more dangerous than it was ever intended to be. Watch for the moment when Connery slips and falls on the roof after jumping from car to car—that was a genuine accident, and the fact that he loses his grip on the bundle that he was carrying shows how much that the mistake rattled him.
Of course, we are talking about Sean Connery here, so as breathtaking as his stunt work may have been, the results in terms of the story are never really in doubt. There is a bit of suspense to The Great Train Robbery, but it still maintains a fairly lighthearted tone throughout, with plenty of earthy humor, double entendres, and even some slapstick along the way. Yet Crichton was careful to include a darker moment to demonstrate that Pierce’s crew is playing for keeps. These antiheroes are still hardened crooks, after all, and nothing is more offensive to their criminal sensibilities than a grass in their midst. (There’s also a tonally jarring sequence where a dog kills some rats in disturbingly unsimulated fashion, something that Crichton later regretted shooting.) Still, the ending of The Great Train Robbery demonstrates that the working classes will always be happy to see anyone stick it to the Man regardless of the reasons why, and so these antiheroes end up becoming folk heroes instead. The real-life Pierce and Agar weren’t so lucky, but it’s a suitable finish for their likable cinematic alter egos. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth shot The Great Train Robbery on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1. (The film is dedicated to Unsworth, who passed shortly before its release.) This version uses the same master that Kino Lorber had previously used for their 2014 Blu-ray, which appears to have been derived from a 2K scan of an interpositive. The difference is that this time it’s been encoded onto a BD-50 instead of a BD-25. The new bitrate holds steadily at 40mpbs with only minimal variations, while the older one averaged between 20-30mbps, occasionally dipping as low as 15mbps.
The improvements in this case are minimal, with everything looking perhaps a touch smoother in motion. There’s little difference in terms of fine detail regardless of encode due to Unsworth’s heavy use of filters, smoke, and other diffusion effects to create that characteristically soft and glowing silvery look that was the hallmark of his cinematography. The filters also softened the overall contrast, yet the black levels are still adequate—although there’s not much shadow detail visible. Some of the darkest shots are prone to looking a little noisy, which is probably baked into the master since the more robust encode here didn’t solve the problem. (The scene where Connery meets Elphick in a graveyard at 1:05:12 looks particularly rough.) Otherwise, damage is mostly limited to light speckling and small scratches, although there’s a heavy blue scratch that passes through the frame at one point. A fresh 4K scan off the original camera negative could certainly offer some improvements despite the inherently diffused nature of the original cinematography, but Kino is still to be commended for doing whatever they could to improve what they had available to them.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The Great Train Robbery was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, although at that point it was still referred to simply as Dolby System. The 5.1 track sounds like a simple discrete encoding of the original matrix-encoded four channels and not an actual remix. The 2.0 track definitely has encoded surround activity, so it’s the original theatrical Dolby mix and not just a fold-down of the 5.1 track. When the 2.0 version is run through a decoder, the differences between the two are fairly minor. The steering is perhaps a bit more precise in 5.1, while the 2.0 version has a slightly more spacious sound overall. You can’t really go wrong either way, so the choice is yours. Whether discrete or matrixed, it’s a surprisingly aggressive mix for the era with strong channel separation and plenty of surround activity. It’s certainly not as immersive as modern mixes can be, but it’s really quite good. The only thing that’s lacking is deep bass, but there’s still a hint of it with the trains and the fireworks. Otherwise, the lively score from the great Jerry Goldsmith sounds great, and it helps support the tongue-in-cheek tone of the film perfectly.
Kino Lorber’s 2023 Blu-ray release of The Great Train Robbery includes a reversible insert and a slipcover that duplicates the artwork on the front side of that insert. (The previous disc didn’t include a slipcover.) The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Michael Crichton
- TV Spots (Upscaled SD – 1:05, 2 in all)
- Trailer (SD – 2:52)
- Cuba Trailer (SD – 1:55)
- Ordeal by Innocence Trailer (HD – 2:41)
- Grand Slam Trailer (HD – 3:52)
- Breakheart Pass Trailer (SD – 3:07)
- Murder by Decree Trailer (SD – 3:33)
The archival commentary track with Michael Crichton was originally recorded for the 1996 MGM/UA-Image Entertainment LaserDisc release of The Great Train Robbery. He describes the complicated origins of both the book and the film, and he also sheds light on some of the obscure period and technical details, like the Victorian-era scams performed by Pierce and his crew. He explains the different approaches to directing that he used on his various projects, and why this one worked best with a more hands-off approach. Of course, he offers plenty of juicy details about the rail heist stunt work, and he does express his discomfort about the ratting sequence. He does make a few baffling comments, like saying that he was going for a PG-13 rating when it didn’t even exist at the time, and claiming that Unsworth’s diffusion was all from smoke and no filters were involved. (It was actually both.) Still, it’s a great commentary overall, albeit one that’s a little laid-back.
There are plenty of companies that churn out endless re-releases of existing titles while adding little to nothing of value, but Kino Lorber is definitely going the extra mile with their own re-issues. It’s too bad that they couldn’t get their hands on newer masters, but it’s great that they’re still doing as much as they can by improving the encodes for the old masters and adding new content like commentary tracks and slipcovers. These are definitely the versions to own. Is it worth upgrading if you already own their previous discs? That’s a tougher call. There’s definitely a slight uptick in video quality from the new encodes, but The Great Train Robbery doesn’t really add anything else aside from the slipcover and a few trailers. Whether or not that’s enough is up to you, but there’s always another Kino Lorber sale just around the corner...
- Stephen Bjork