“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” (1979) Review

 

“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” (1979) Review

As I have stated in many previous movie reviews, I am a sucker for period drama. However, I am an even bigger sucker when said drama turns out to be something different from the usual narrative for this kind of genre. In the case of the 1979 movie, “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY”, it turned out to be one of those rare kind of films. 

Like Michael Crichton’s 1975 novel, “The Great Robbery”“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” is a fictional account of a famous robbery known as the “Great Gold Robbery of 1855”. Before one thinks that the movie is a faithful account of this historical event or a faithful adaptation of Crichton’s novel . . . you are bound to be disappointed. Not only did Crichton play a little fast and loose with history in his novel, he also wrote the movie’s screenplay and made even more changes to the tale.

“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” began with a failed attempt by some nameless criminal to rob the gold used to pay the British troops fight in the Crimean War being shipped monthly on the London-to-Folkestone train. This failed robbery, which ended with the criminal’s death, had been masterminded by a successful criminal named Edward Pierce. Finally realizing that the gold is guarded in two safes with two locks each, Pierce and his mistress, Miriam, recruit a pickpocket and screwsman named Robert Agar to make copies of the safes’ four keys. They also set about attaining copies of the keys by exploiting the weaknesses of two key holders – bank president Edgar Trent and bank manager Henry Fowler.

When they discover that the other two keys are locked in a cabinet, inside the office of the South Eastern Railway at the London Bridge train station, Pierce and Agar recruit a cat burglar named “Clean Willie” to help them break into rail office and make impressions of the keys. At first, Pierce is able to execute his plan with very few problems. But obtaining the keys inside the South Eastern Railway office and recruiting “Clean Willie” end up producing major obstacles that he and his accomplices are forced to overcome.

I would not claim that “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” is a favorite movie of mine. But I must admit that every time I watch it, I usually end up enjoying it very much. And I cannot deny that it proved to be different than the usual period drama. Although “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” is a literary adaptation that also features a historical event, it is not the usual period piece. I mean . . . how many period dramas are about a real-life crime? Especially a crime that had occurred before the 20th century? If there is another movie with a similar narrative, I have yet to come across it.

Even more interesting is that Crichton utilized great details to show audiences how the crime was planned and carried out. Yes, I realize that Crichton had made changes to his portrayal of the 1855 gold robbery, but I still cannot help but admire that he portrayed this crime in such a detailed manner. And this allowed me to enjoy the film even more, for it provided audiences a detailed look into the criminal and business worlds of the Victorian Age during the 1850s. This was especially the case in the movie’s second half in which the protagonists schemed to get their hands on copies of the third and fourth set of keys inside a London railway station. And if I must be honest, I enjoyed the movie’s first half even more – especially those scenes that featured the robbers’ attempts to acquire copies of the first two keys. Since those two keys were in the hands of bank executive Trent and bank manager Fowlers, the movie allowed peeks into the lives of an early Victorian family and a Victorian bachelor, all from the upper-middle-classes. These scenes included one featuring Pierce’s wooing of Trent’s only daughter, while riding along Hyde Park’s Rotten Row, a popular riding spot for upper and middle-class Londoners; and another featuring Miriam’s seduction of the always lustful Fowler inside an exclusive London bordello.

Another aspect of “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” that I enjoyed was its production values. Crichton and producer John Foreman had gathered a first-rate crew for this movie. There were four aspects of the movie’s production values that I enjoyed . . . somewhat. I certainly had no problem with Maurice Carter’s production designs for the movie. I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating Victorian London – especially in crowd scenes like the Rotten Row sequence, the bordello and the railway station. I also enjoyed Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Although I did not find it particularly memorable, I thought it blended well with various scenes throughout the movie and was original enough in a jaunty way. I have slightly mixed feelings about Anthony Mendleson’s costume designs. On one hand, I thought many of them – especially those for the male characters – wonderfully recaptured the fashion styles of the mid-1850s. My feelings regarding his designs for the female characters were another matter. There were some designs that I admired very much – especially those for the Pamela Trent and Emily Trent characters. Yet, I found those designs for Lesley-Anne Down’s character rather theatrical. I also have mixed about Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography. On one hand, I found many of the film’s wide shots – especially in many of the exterior shots – rather colorful and beautiful. Unfortunately . . . I also noticed that Unsworth’s photography seemed to project this hazy film, indicating that the movie was a period drama. Personally, I found this . . . haze rather annoying and a bit detrimental to the movie’s sharp colors.

I can only recall at least three or four sequences that might be considered action-oriented. Three of them involved the “Clean Willie” character and I found them well shot by Crichton. The fourth action sequence – the actual train robbery – was also well shot by Crichton. The problem is that I am not a big fan of the actual robbery sequence. What can I say? It bored me. I could explain that I am becoming less tolerant of action sequences in my old age. But if I must be honest, I never really liked this sequence when I first saw it when I was a lot younger. There is nothing like an actual action sequence on top a train to bore the living daylights out of me. It was not Crichton’s fault. This is simply a case of my personal preferences.

I certainly had no problems with the cast. Sean Connery was the perfect embodiment of middle-age debonair as the charismatic, clever and occasionally ruthless criminal mastermind, Edward Pierce. I would not exactly regard this role as a challenge for him. But he seemed to be enjoying himself. The role of Pierce’s mistress, Miriam, seemed to be quite rare for Lesley-Anne Down. I can only recall her portraying a similar character in another heist film that released the same year. Personally, I thought she did a great job portraying Miriam not only as a sexy paramour for Pierce, but also as an equally intelligent and talented partner-in-crime.

The movie also featured some interesting performances from Malcolm Terris as the lustful bank manager Henry Fowler with a penchant for prostitutes. Michael Elphick was effective as the cool and collected bank guard Burgess, who accepts Pierce’s bribe to be a part of the heist. Gabrielle Lloyd gave an interesting performance as Edgar Trent’s rather stuffy and plain daughter Elizabeth whom Pierce pretends to court. And Pamela Salem gave a sly performance as Elizabeth’s stepmother Emily Trent, who hides her lust for Pierce with a cool attitude and pointed comments. Other fine supporting performances came from Alan Webb, Wayne Sleep, Robert Lang and André Morell.

“What about Donald Sutherland?” many might be thinking. Why was he left out of the praise? Trust me, he was not. If I must be honest, Sutherland gave my favorite performance in the film. I really enjoyed his colorful take on the witty and sly pickpocket/screwsman Robert Agar. However, I do have one complaint to make . . . and it not about Sutherland’s peformance. As I had just stated, I found it very enjoyable. But I had read somewhere that the real Agar was more or less the brains behind the bank robbery. Also, Crichton had somewhat “dumbed down” the character in his 1975 novel and in the movie. I noticed, while watching the film that Sutherland’s Agar seemed to flip-flop between an intelligent criminal and a buffoon. Personally, I found this inconsistent and unnecessary . . . especially for a successful criminal like Agar.

Yes, I have a few quibbles regarding “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY”. And if I must be honest, it is not a great favorite of mine. But I certainly do not regarding it as a mediocre piece of filmmaking. In fact, I thought it was not only an excellent movie, but also rather original for a period piece. Michael Crichton may not have been that faithful to what actually happened during the “Great Gold Robbery of 1855”, but I found his fictionalized account rather exciting. And the movie was topped by fine performances from a cast led by Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down.

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“VICTORIA” Season One (2016) Episode Ranking

Below is my ranking of the Season One episodes of the ITV series called “VICTORIA”. Created by Daisy Goodwin, the series stars Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria: 

 

“VICTORIA” SEASON ONE (2016) EPISODE RANKING

1. (1.05) “An Ordinary Woman” – After the young Queen Victoria announces her engagement to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the Tory-controlled Parliament reacts with hostility at the idea of a German consort.

2. (1.03) “Brocket Hall” – Victoria receives pressure to get married as soon as possible from her mother, the Duchess of Kent; the latter’s corrupted aide, Sir John Conroy; and her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, who wants her to marry Prince Albert.

3. (1.02) “Ladies in Waiting” – When the popularity of Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne wanes, the Tory party under Sir Robert Peel eagerly anticipates assuming power and demand that the Queen dismiss her four Whig Ladies of the Bedchamber and replace them with the wives of Tories.

4. (1.07) “The Engine of Change” – Tory ministers plot to disrupt a pregnant Victoria and Albert’s visit to northern England, after she declared that in the event of her death from childbirth, Albert will become regent.

5. (1.04) “A Clockwork Prince” – Prince Albert arrives in England to visit and officially court Victoria. The pair proved to be mutually aloof, and resentful for being pushed toward each other.

6. (1.01) “Doll 123” – Upon the death of King William IV, his 18 year-old niece, Victoria of Kent, becomes Britain’s new sovereign and immediately declares her independence from the Duchess of Kent and Sir John. This also leads her into a royal scandal involving her mother’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings.

7. (1.06) “The Queen’s Husband” – Feeling listless in court, Prince Albert becomes interested in the abolitionist movement. Meanwhile, Victoria curries favor with her paternal uncle, the Duke of Sussex, who is unable to present his wife at court because their morganatic marriage.

8. (1.08) “Young England” – A heavily pregnant and bored Victoria defies the advice of her husband and mother by a drive to escape the confines of Buckingham Palace, attracting the attention of a deranged would-be assassin.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1750 and 1799

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1750 and 1799: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1750 AND 1799

1 - The Last of the Mohicans

1. “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) – Michael Mann directed what I believe is the best film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel set during the Seven Years War. The movie starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Wes Studi and Russell Means.

2 - Dangerous Liaisons

2. “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) – Stephen Frears directed this sumptuous Oscar nominated adaptation of screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s 1985 stage play, which was an adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel. The movie starred Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfieffer.

3 - Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

3. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) – Ang Lee directed this superb Oscar winning adaptation of Wang Dulu’s wuxia novel. The movie starred Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi.

4 - Amazing Grace

4. “Amazing Grace” (2006) – Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch and Romola Garai starred in this biopic about British politician/abolitionist William Wilberforce’s efforts to end Britain’s TransAtlantic slave trade. Michael Apted directed.

5 - The Scarlet Pimpernel

5. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1982) – Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour starred in this superb adaptation of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel, “Eldorado”. Directed by Clive Donner, the movie co-starred Ian McKellen.

6 - Pride and Prejudice 2005

6. “Pride & Prejudice” (2005) – Joe Wright directed this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. The movie starred Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.

7 - 1776

7. “1776” (1972) – William Daniels, Howard da Silva and Ken Howard starred in this adaptation of Peter Stone’s 1969 Broadway musical set during the American Revolution. Peter H. Hunt directed.

8 - The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

8. “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” (1963) – Patrick McGoohan starred in this Disney adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel, “Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh”. James Neilson directed.

9 - Jefferson in Paris

9. “Jefferson in Paris” (1995) – Ismail Merchant co-produced and James Ivory directed this semi-fictionalized account of Thomas Jefferson’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to France. The movie starred Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Gwyneth Paltrow and Thandie Newton.

10 - April Morning

10. “April Morning” (1988) – Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich starred in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1961 novel about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Delbert Mann directed.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review

For years, I had made an effort to avoid any novel written by Thomas Hardy and any movie or television production based upon his works. This has nothing to do with how I felt about the quality of his work. My attitude sprang from my reading of his 1886 novel, “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, when I was in my late teens. I found the latter rather depressing and suspected that most of his other works possessed the same downbeat tone. As I grew older, I discovered a tolerance for stories with a downbeat or bittersweet ending. This led me to try Hardy again and so, I focused my attention on the 1998 miniseries, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”.

Based upon Hardy’s 1874 novel, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” told the story about a young woman named Bathsheba Everdene, who had recently inherited her late uncle’s prosperous estate. Possessing a vain, yet independent and naïve personality, Bathsheba finds herself torn between three men who wish to marry her:

*Gabriel Oak – a failed sheep farmer who is hired by Bathsheba as a shepherd for her farm

*William Boldwood – a prosperous farmer and Bathsheba’s neighbor, who develops a romantic obsession toward her

*Sergeant Francis “Frank” Troy – a dashing Army sergeant, who turns to Bathsheba not long after his planned wedding to a local girl named Fanny Robin fails to take place.

The story begins with Bathsheba living on a farm with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst. She meets Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who has leased and stocked a sheep farm. Although the pair develops a close friendship, Gabriel falls in love with Bathsheba and eventually proposes marriage. Valuing her independence too much, Bathsheba refuses and their relationship cools down. Gabriel’s fortunes take a worse for turn, when his inexperienced sheep dog drives his flock of sheep over a cliff, bankrupting him. Bathsheba, on the other hand, inherits her uncle’s prosperous estate in Westbury. Their paths crosses again, and she ends up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd.

However, Bathsheba has also become acquainted with her new neighbor, the wealthy farmer, John Boldwood, who becomes romantically obsessed with her after she sends him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. He sets about wooing her in a persistent manner that she finds difficult to ignore. But just as Bathsheba is about to consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy enters her life and she becomes infatuated with him. Unbeknownst to anyone, Frank was set to marry one of Bathsheba’s former servants, a young woman named Fanny Robin. Unfortunately, the latter showed up at the wrong church for the wedding. Humiliated and angry, Frank called off the wedding. While Bathsheba finds herself in the middle of a rather unpleasant love triangle between Boldwood and Frank, Gabriel can only watch helplessly as this situation develops into tragedy.

I might as well be honest. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” did not strike me as completely tragic. It did not prove to be tragic at the same level as stories like “The Mayor of Casterbridge” or “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. In fact, the story did not even have a tragic ending (for which I am grateful). But there was something . . . I cannot put my finger on it . . . there was an undertone to the story that I found both fascinating and disturbing. And it all revolved around the character of Bathsheba Everdene. Personally, I feel that she was one of Hardy’s best creations. Bathsheba proved to be a curious mixture of virtues and flaws that I fear is becoming increasingly rare among fictional female characters.

One one hand, Bathsheba was an intelligent woman who quickly learned to manage an estate and lead a group of workers who harbored doubts about her, due to her gender. She also had the good sense to realize she lacked the experience or talent to deal with some aspect of estate managing and turn to someone who could help her – usually Gabriel Oak. On the other hand, Bathsheba also proved to be a vain young woman, who seemed a bit too concerned about how others thought about her. This vanity led her to hide her previous friendship with Gabriel . . . to the point that she insisted they maintain an employer-employee distance from each other. Bathsheba also possessed a slightly cruel streak that led her to thoughtlessly play an unkind joke on John Boldwood by sending him a Valentine Day’s card with the words “Marry me” scribbled on it. Ironically, Bathsheba also proved she could be just as obsessive as Boldwood, when she fell for Frank Troy and realizes after their wedding that he had continued to love his former fiancée, Fanny Robin. It was this combination of positive and negative traits that made Bathsheba such an interesting and ambiguous character. And Bathsheba’s ambiguous nature seemed to have a strong impact on Hardy’s tale.

Through Bathsheba’s relationship with Gabriel Oak, audiences received glimpses of the day-to-day realities of business and life on a 19th century farm. Audiences also got a chance to view Bathsheba through Gabriel’s eyes – despite his love for her, he seemed to harbor a realistic view of her. Through her relationships with neighbor John Boldwood and husband Frank Troy, audiences got the chance to see Bathsheba deal with obsession from both sides of the fence – whether she was the object of Boldwood’s obsession or Frank was the object of hers. Now that I think about it, I find it odd that a major character would experience obsession from different perspectives in that manner. How strange . . . and yet, satisfying in a way.

Although the plot for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” focused strongly on the romantic dynamics between Bathsheba, the three men in her life and the Fanny Robin character; I was pleased to discover that Philomena McDonagh’s screenplay also gave audiences many glimpses into the lives of the farmhands that worked for Bathsheba. The miniseries delved into her relationship with her workers and their own perspectives and hangups over whether she could handle being the owner of prosperous farm. As with her relationship with Gabriel, Bathsheba’s relationship with her workers allowed the audiences to appreciate the realities of life on a 19th century farm.

The production values for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” seemed pretty top-notch. Well . . . most of them. I had no problems with Adrian Smith’s production designs. I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating mid 19th century Wessex. Rosie Hardwick and Paul Kirby’s art direction contributed to the movie’s overall look, along with Nic Ede’s costume designs. I find it interesting that this version is set between the late 1850s and 1860, especially since the other two adaptation are set in the 1870s . . . the same decade as the novel’s publication. Although I admire John Daly’s use of the locations in Derbyshire, Cheshire and Wiltshire as substitutes for Wessex, I did not care for the cinematography very much. I found it slightly too dark and the color did not hold up well in the following seventeen to eighteen years.

The cast, on the other hand, struck me as first-rate. It is a pity that very few ever comment on Paloma Baeza’s portrayal of Bathsheba Everdeen. Frankly, I thought she did an excellent job in conveying both the character’s ambiguities, charm and intelligence. More importantly, she did a first-rate job in carrying such a large production on her shoulders, at such a young age. Nathaniel Parker’s portrayal of Gabriel Oak proved to be the production’s emotional backbone. But the actor also did an excellent job in conveying his character’s quiet passion, along with his jealousy and growing despair over Bathsheba’s relationships with both John Boldwood and Frank Troy.

John Terry was at least a decade older than the John Boldwood character at the time this miniseries was filmed. However, I do not believe that this decade old age difference hampered his character one whit. He gave an outstanding performance as the love-sick, middle-aged farmer who developed a growing obsession over the young and pretty Bathsheba. At first, I had some difficulty is viewing Jonathan Firth as the dashing, yet egotistical Frank Troy. I fear this had to do with my inability to view the actor as the roguish type. And I was not that impressed by the sword demonstration scene between his his character and Baeza’s Bathsheba. But the more I watched Firth on the television screen, the more I found myself impressed by his performance . . . especially by the time his character had married Bathsheba and began to reveal his less than pleasant traits to his new wife. Natasha Little gave a very charming, yet sympathetic performance as the hard-luck Fanny Robin, whose mistake in showing up at the wrong church for her wedding to Frank, proved to be so disastrous. Fortunately for Little, the screenplay allowed her to portray Fanny as an individual with her own set of emotions, instead of the mere plot device that Hardy had portrayed in the novel. The production also benefited from solid performances by Tracy Keating, Gabrielle Lloyd, Linda Bassett, Phillip Joseph, Rhys Morgan, Reginald Callcott and Sean Gilder.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may have suffered from questionable photography, but I certainly had no problems with other aspects of the productions. Its 216 minutes running time allowed screenwriter Philomena McDonagh and director Nicholas Renton to create a superb and detailed adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel. Also, top-notch production values (aside from the photography) and excellent performances from a cast led by Paloma Baeza and Nathaniel Parker added a great deal to already well done miniseries.

2.1104482

R.I.P. Nigel Terry (1945-2015)