The Great Train Robbery (1978)

If the worth of a film can be measured in the height of the protagonist’s hat, then The Great Train Robbery is one of the finest cinematic endeavors in history. Look at that thing! More than once I thought of this:

Even if we strike that particular criteria, Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery is still one of the most unique and enjoyable entries in his long and storied career. We’ve discussed Crichton’s popular status as a “sci-fi writer” before, positing that although The Andromeda Strain and Coma and Jurassic Park certainly number among his finest works, Crichton also defied the genre to which he’d been assigned by the popular media on more than one occasion. In no single script is this more apparent than in The Great Train Robbery, adapted from his own 1975 novel, and the reason why isn’t simply because there’s no science fiction involved.

First off, the casting of Sean Connery is a deceptively brilliant move, and one that Connery himself didn’t agree with until he read the novel and met Crichton. Connery so often plays the Man Out of Time that it’s a wonder he’s in so few genuine period pieces. That makes his turn as the swindler Pierce in Robbery all the more special. He’s joined by Donald Sutherland (who was really rocking some awesome mustaches in the late ’70s, from this to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Murder by Decree), and together they’re essentially the original Danny Ocean/Rusty Ryan heist team.

Most importantly, though, Great Train Robbery isn’t unique in Crichton’s oeuvre because of a lack of science fiction elements — it’s unique because despite the elements of a straightforward drama, of a factual historical account, of a “genuine period piece” as we deemed it a moment ago, Robbery is really just a comedy. Oddly enough, Crichton deliberately varied the film from his own novel, claiming that the book was “straight, factual” and the film, though dealing with the same characters in the same story, would be “close to farce”. That might make Robbery the only comedy Crichton ever wrote, depending on your definition of “comedy” (Dealing, for example, might technically be considered a comedy if not for the simple fact that it’s never funny).

Robbery is funny. It’s not all that surprising that Connery would agree to star in a later Crichton story, Rising Sun, because his lines are so perfect throughout Robbery. Admittedly, Connery has made far lesser writers sound eloquent, and he does employ pauses mid-sentence in such a way that it might seem to just be the delivery of the lines that makes them work so well. “No respectable gentleman [pause] is that respectable,” Pierce notes. “Do you ever tell anyone the truth?” someone asks him. “The truth? [pause, grin] No.” Really, though, it’s the pairing of Crichton’s quips and Connery’s ability to put suave force behind the quips that makes exchanges like this one (which in hindsight hardly seem suitable for a PG film) sing above and below the surface:

And it’s not just The Connery Show, either. Crichton surrounds his hero with a great cast of characters, from the sultry tagalong Miriam to the sex-crazed aristocrat Henry Fowler to the wall-scaling prison escapee Clean Willy. At the forefront Connery and Sutherland play the smooth operator/manic fixer parts to perfection, again delivering on the surprising comedic timing of Crichton:

The Great Train Robbery is in many ways the best proof that Crichton’s talents were hardly limited to a single genre. Not only is the specific subgenre — futuristic medical thriller vs. Victorian-era heist film — totally different than what one might expect, but the overarching genre — drama vs. comedy — is unexpected, too. One gets the sense that Crichton attempted this on purpose, especially considering he deliberately altered the tone of his own novel to achieve a more lightfooted jaunt. Plenty of writers try this switch from drama to comedy or back the other way, to varying degrees of success and failure. Michael Crichton just makes it look easy.

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