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.
Michael Crichton had an extremely productive early ’70s. Multiple film adaptations of his works were in the making, including a successful version of his 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, and Crichton himself began foraying into directing and screenwriting. But he continued with prose as well, publishing five novels in the first three years of the decade. Three of these bore his pseudonym “John Lange” and one of them (The Terminal Man) bore Crichton’s actual name; the fifth, a collaboration with his brother Douglas Crichton, was published under another pseudonym that combined the names of both brothers. Suspiciously, an actor named “Michael Douglas” became pretty damn famous not long after.
But that Crichton Brothers book — a somewhat zany story called Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues — sadly is the least effective of those early tales. It’s obvious, even in the film version of the novel, that the pair of writers either couldn’t agree on a direction for the story or just succeeded in writing a story that goes nowhere. Dealing is an absolute slog, and so maybe Michael Douglas’s uptick in fame should be attributed to something else (“like what?”) and not to his deft scriptwriting ability.