The First Great Train Robbery takes all but a minute before it sets up its basic premise. The Salaries of the soldiers of the Crimean War are passed over as gold which is carried in the goods vans of a train. The gold however is pretty well guarded with its safety ensured by two Chubb lockers which hold the gold. The lockers are then locked with four locks with all four keys in the hands of three different sources thus ensuring the total safety of the gold. As described in the silken voice of Sean Connery himself, the presence of so much gold at one place aroused the interest of the criminal fraternity but the biggest obstacle in their path was the fact that such a robbery had never been attempted before. The rest of the film dwells upon how Pierce (Sean Connery) and his small team of thieves and con artists rob this immense amount of gold and make away with it.
As is the case with most of the well made heist films, The First Great Train Robbery is highly entertaining. I found in many reviews that the critics have raised questions on some aspects of the film sitting them to be unjustifiable and some others to be plain unnecessary. To the former I say this that the films of this genre concentrate more on the whirlwind speed and entertainment factor than precise logic and precision in getting every fact right and to the later I found not a single scene in the film which was not related to the plot in some way or the other. From the first scene to the last, the film concentrates on the plot to rob the train and that’s all about it. There is a romantic angle between Pierce and Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down) but that too is totally circumstantial.
Getting back to the plot, it can be divided to two distinct parts. The first is made up of the planning and acquiring the instruments for carrying out the robbery while the second deals with the committing of the actual crime. While acquiring the four keys is by far the most interesting part of the film, the climax and the final robbery is somewhat lukewarm. The audience ought to expect and crave for more after the sparkling beginning but unfortunately that doesn’t happen. The film also provides zero insight into the history of the character and so the audience-character connect is totally dependent on the likeability of the characters. This is where the star power of Connery, Sutherland and the Anne Down come in real handy.
The film gallops through the roles and doesn’t have as single dull moment all the way through. The speed and the narrative keeps you hooked and the rest is taken care of by the immense likeability of the characters. There are also some good action sequences. The scene where a jail break takes place in the midst of the hanging of a nun is thrilling to watch. The hanging works as the perfectly gloomy background behind which to commit the escape. The scene where Connery makes his way through a running train top is also thrilling to watch.
It also goes beyond mention that the film is one of the most beautifully shot films of 1978. The set pieces, the costume designs and the mounting of the film is eye catching. Even while committing thievery the men look like gentlemen of the highest order. It’s also ironic to see that Pierce lands up in the hands of the authorities owing to a torn coat. The mood and the settings are spot on complete with superb performances from Connery, Sutherland and Anne Down. Malcolm Terris’s Fowler is another genuinely funny character in the film. Look out for is un-gentleman like advances on Miriam while on the train.
Overall, The First Great Train Robbery offers everything that it promised and at many junctures goes well beyond its reach. It is a must watch for all those who enjoy Heist films or even for that matter entertaining films. This is one film which will appeal to one and all.