Never heard of this before ten years ago. Found a discount book store and purchased three titles for $1.00 each. One was Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery. That was interesting. It’s based on the first really great train robbery, in England in 1855, and it was some kind of robbery, making for a solid movie plot, which Crichton also wrote, also directed. The movie came out in 1978, and I caught it streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Details are from Wikipedia. Here is the principal cast:
- Sean Connery as Edward Pierce
- Donald Sutherland as Agar
- Lesley-Anne Down as Miriam
Alan Webb as Trent
- Malcolm Terris as Henry Fowler
- Robert Lang as Sharp
- Michael Elphick as Burgess
- Wayne Sleep as Clean Willy
- Pamela Salem as Emily Trent
- Gabrielle Lloyd as Elizabeth Trent
- George Downing as Barlow
- James Cossins as Harranby
- André Morell as Judge
- Peter Benson as Station Master
- Janine Duvitski as Maggie
- Peter Butterworth as Putnam
The plot follows more or less the book’s narrative, and a few excerpts will help with the explaining.
It is difficult, after the passage of more than a century, to understand the extent to which the train robbery of 1855 shocked the sensibilities of Victorian England. At first glance, the crime hardly seems noteworthy. The sum of money stolen—£12,000 in gold bullion—was large, but not unprecedented; there had been a dozen more lucrative robberies in the same period. And the meticulous organization and planning of the crime, involving many people and extending over a year, was similarly not unusual. All major crimes at the mid-century called for a high degree of preparation and coordination.
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Here is the opening scene:
As the train clattered down the track on its way to the coast, the sliding door of the luggage van opened suddenly, revealing a desperate struggle inside. The contest was most unevenly matched: a slender youth in tattered clothing, striking out against a burly, blue-uniformed railway guard.
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery (p. 3). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The gentleman climbed the hill, pressed binoculars to his eyes, and swept the length of the tracks. Immediately he fixed on the body of the prostrate youth. But the gentleman made no attempt to approach him, or to aid him in any way. On the contrary, he remained standing on the hill until he was certain the lad was dead. Only then did he turn aside, climb into his waiting coach, and drive back in the direction he had come, northward toward London.
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery (pp. 4-5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The French and the British were battling the Russians in Crimea at this time, and the Brits paid their men in gold. Regular gold shipments went out, leaving London by train to the port. Shipments amounted to £12,000 each, and that was a wad of money in those days. The shipper took elaborate precautions to safeguard the cargo. The gold left the treasury by armed coach, unannounced and by unplanned routes. They loaded the gold onto the baggage car of the train, where resided two hefty safes of hardened steel. Opening required four keys simultaneously, and separate men kept their separate copies.
We see Edward Pierce, hobnobbing with London society, working his way into the lives of those with access to the keys.
This singular gentleman was Edward Pierce, and for a man destined to become so notorious that Queen Victoria herself expressed a desire to meet him—or, barring that, to attend his hanging—he remains an oddly mysterious figure. In appearance, Pierce was a tall, handsome man in his early thirties who wore a full red beard in the fashion that had recently become popular, particularly among government employees. In his speech, manner, and dress he seemed to be a gentleman, and well-to-do; he was apparently very charming, and possessed of “a captivating address.” He himself claimed to be an orphan of Midlands gentry, to have attended Winchester and then Cambridge. He was a familiar figure in many London social circles and counted among his acquaintances Ministers, Members of Parliament, foreign ambassadors, bankers, and others of substantial standing. Although a bachelor, he maintained a house at No. 19 Curzon Street, in a fashionable part of London. But he spent much of the year traveling, and was said to have visited not only the Continent but New York as well.
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery (pp. 6-7). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
But Pierce needed accomplices. He needed a man good with his hands. On the street he studied the activities of one such.
Robert Agar—a known screwsman, or specialist in keys and safe-breaking—testified in court that when he met Edward Pierce in late May, 1854, he had not seen him for two years previously. Agar was twenty-six years old, and in fair health except for a bad cough, the legacy of his years as a child working for a match manufacturer in Wharf Road, Bethnal Green. The premises of the firm were poorly ventilated, and the white vapor of phosphorous filled the air at all times. Phosphorous was known to be poisonous, but there were plenty of people eager to work at any job, even one that might cause a person’s lungs to decay, or his jaw to rot off—sometimes in a matter of months.
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery (p. 10). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I had to watch this a second time through to catch it. The two men in front have an accident of sorts, and while attention zeros onto them, Agar picks the lady’s pocket.
From time to time he would also require a woman to do what women do. Here he is with Miriam.
First the gang needs to acquire copies of the four keys. They carry wax blocks and set about getting access to each key, making an impression and leaving the key in place. Miriam creates a distraction by stopping at a target house. When the butler goes out the front door to see what the lady in the carriage wants, Pierce and Agar sneak in and search the wine cellar, where it has been learned the occupant keeps one of the keys.
It is learned another key keeper has a weakness for the ladies. Miriam poses as a woman of low repute and meets the gentleman at a house of low repute. There will be no action until the key comes off his neck. A hand comes from behind a curtain and plucks the key. As if by miracle, there are sounds of a police raid, and the gentleman hustles out the back door with his clothing and his copy of the (copied) key.
The remaining two keys are kept in the train station office, up a flight of stairs, windows exposing everything that goes on. They need someone who can scale the outside wall and unlock the station office from the inside. Clean Willy is the man, but he is in prison. The scheduled hanging of an ax murderer provides the distraction, and Willy defeats the notorious prison wall.
And much of the rest goes well, for a while. At night the station security guard has his scheduled dinner with his scheduled beer, followed by his scheduled 70-second beer relief. Agar uses the 70-second opening to bound up the stairs, enter the unlocked door, find and copy the two keys, and escape.
Willy’s job is done, but he makes a fatal mistake. Instead of lying low he returns to work and is caught by the police attempting to lift a purse. Willy does not want to return to prison, and he pleas for leniency in exchange for information. He arranges to meet Pierce while the police watch, but Pierce escapes. Too late. A copper has had a look at Pierce.
Willy’s remaining time is short. He takes a labyrinthine route, through dim alleys, across roof tops, in and out of numerous buildings to arrive at a safe place. Once there he starts to relax.
He walked to the end of the street, and then turned in to the entrance of another lodging house. Immediately he knew that something was wrong; normally there were children yelling and scrambling all over the stairs, but now the entrance and stairs were deserted and silent. He paused at the doorway, and was just about to turn and flee when a rope snaked out and twisted around his neck, yanking him into a dark corner.
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery (p. 221). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Here Crichton changes the plot a bit. Watching, I saw only bare hands around Willy’s throat.
But now the police know something is up, and it has to do with the railway. It’s the gold shipment. The shipping company strengthens security. The baggage car will have a lock on the outside. Any package capable of containing a person must be inspected. What are you going to do, Mr. Pierce?
Agar appeared unconvinced. “Say you put me on in some trunk. He’s bound he’ll open it and have a see, and there I am. What then?”
“I intend for him to open it and see you,” Pierce said.
“I think so, and it will go smoothly enough, if you can take a bit of odor.”
“What manner of odor?”
“The smell of a dead dog, or cat,” Pierce said. “Dead some days. Do you think you can manage that?”
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery (p. 260). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
So Agar plays dead in a coffin, and this dear woman (Miriam) wants to ship him in the baggage car. Here is what’s funny. During a period of time there arose the fear of being mistaken for dead and buried alive. People would arrange to have a bell attached to their coffin, so if they awoke and found themselves about to be buried alive, they could ring the bell, and people would open the coffin and welcome them back from the afterlife.
Of course the inspectors are going to want to open the coffin, but Agar rings the bell just to be sure. Miriam is ecstatic. He is alive. Open the coffin. They do, and there lies sweet Agar, dead of cholera, cholera! And smelling of days-old dead cat. The coffin is quickly closed and loaded onto the baggage car.
Now Pierce needs to unlock the baggage car from the outside of a moving train. For this he brings along a piece of rope. The baggage car guard has been bribed. After all, he was locked inside all the time. He obviously had nothing to do with this business. We see Pierce leaving his train compartment and making his way four cars back on the moving train. He drops ends of the rope through vents on top of the baggage car, and Agar and the guard apply tension to keep Pierce steady while he picks the lock.
Inside the car, Pierce, Agar, and the guard exchange the gold for lead. At the appropriate point they open the door and toss the gold to waiting accomplices. Pierce is now covered in soot, so he takes Agar’s outer clothing and returns to his compartment, locking the baggage car behind him.
But at the station he is recognized among the crowd and arrested. He is put on trial and cheerfully confesses to the crime. He makes no apologies. He did it for the money. So it’s off to prison for Pierce.
Not quite. Outside the prison van waits, but driven by an accomplice. Pierce is by now an admired hero—the man who stole the most guarded shipment of gold from a moving train. Adoring fans mob him as he exits the courtroom, one of these fans being Miriam, who slips him a key to the handcuffs.
Pierce kicks his guards off the van and makes his escape, waving to the crowd. This is a variation on the book.
It is presumed that this whore was actually the actress Miss Miriam, and that in kissing Pierce she passed him the key to the handcuffs, but that is not known for certain What is known is that when the two van guards, coshed into insensibility, were later discovered in a gutter near Bow Street, they could not reconstruct the precise details of Pierce’s escape. The only thing they agreed upon was the appearance of the driver—a tough brute of a man, they said, with an ugly white scar across his forehead.
The police van was later recovered in a field in Hampstead. Neither Pierce nor the driver was ever apprehended. Journalistic accounts of the escape are vague, and all mention that the authorities showed reluctance to discuss it at length.
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery (pp. 357-358). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
What’s not to like about this movie? From Wikipedia:
Sean Connery performed most of his own stunts in the film, including the extended sequence on top of the moving train. The train was composed of J-15 class 0-6-0 No 184 of 1880, with its wheels and side rods covered and roof removed, leaving only spectacle plate for protection to give it a look more akin to the 1850s and coaches that were made for the film from modern railway flat wagons. Connery was told that the train would travel at only 20 miles per hour during his time on top of the cars. However, the train crew used an inaccurate means of judging the train’s speed. The train was actually doing speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour. Connery wore soft rubber soled shoes and the roofs of the carriages were covered with a sandy, gritty surface. Connery actually slipped and nearly fell off the train during one jump between two carriages, and had difficulty keeping his eyes free of smoke and cinders from the locomotive.
Besides, that, Crichton’s story is a fabrication loosely based on actual events:
Finally, on 15 May 1855, Tester met Agar at the station, and told him it was “all right”. Agar and Pierce drove to the station dressed as gentlemen and bought first-class tickets for Folkestone. They gave their carpet bags of lead shot to a porter, who in turn gave them to the guard, Burgess, who put them in his van. Agar boarded the guard’s van with Burgess, while Pierce got into a first-class carriage.
As soon as the train began to move, Agar opened the safe and found the three bullion boxes. He removed the iron bands from one of the boxes using a mallet and chisel, took out the gold bars and substituted lead shot, then replaced the bands and replaced the box’s wax seal with a wax taper and an ordinary seal.
It had been arranged beforehand that when the train halted at Redhill Tester should relieve Agar and Pierce of a share of the gold and at that station a bar of gold was placed in a black bag which Tester had brought. In the confusion of the train stopping and starting off again, Pierce got into the van with Agar and Burgess and when it had set off again they opened up a second box. The third and final box contained small bars of Californian gold. Pierce and Agar could not take all of this but took a large portion of it, substituting lead shot as before.
In this instance, reality is more interesting than the movie:
When the boxes were taken out of the safes at Boulogne and weighed, it was discovered that one weighed 40 lb (18 kg) less than it should have, while the other two each weighed a little more. Despite this discrepancy, the boxes were transferred to a train for Paris. Upon arrival in Paris they were weighed again and when they were opened, it was discovered that lead shot had been substituted for the gold. It was clear that the robbery had not taken place between Paris and Boulogne due to the weights corresponding.
Crichton notes in the book the remarkable period in England this was. The first railroads began operation in 1830, and England was never the same after.
In September, 1830, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened and began the revolution. In the first year of operation, the number of railway passengers carried between these two cities was twice the number that had traveled the previous year by coach. By 1838, more than 600,000 people were carried annually on the line—a figure greater than the total population of either Liverpool or Manchester at that time.
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Railroads altered British life with unprecedented swiftness, and the first train robbery of such magnitude caused this crime to be labeled the crime of the century. A few years before Crichton wrote the book there was another crime of the century in England.
The Great Train Robbery was the robbery of £2.6 million from a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to Londonon the West Coast Main Line in the early hours of 8 August 1963, at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn, near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, England.
Eat your heart out, O.J.