Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

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“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1939) Review

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“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1939) Review

Considering the popularity of the Brontë sisters, it is not surprising that there have been considerable movie, stage and television adaptations of their novels. I discovered there have been at least fifteen (15) adaptations of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Wuthering Heights”

I might as well be frank . . . I am not a major fan of the novel. I never have been. I do not dislike it, but I have always preferred the famous novels of the author’s two sisters – namely “Jane Eyre” (1847) by Charlotte Brontë and Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. For some reason, “Wuthering Heights” depresses the hell out of me. I have nothing against works of fiction laced with tragedy. But the heavy barrage of emotional and physical abuse, revenge, and over-the-top passion has always seemed a bit too much for me. Due to my less-than-enthusiastic regard for Ms. Brontë’s novel, I have always been reluctant to watch any of the television or movie adaptations, with the exception of one – the 1939 movie produced by Samuel Goldwyn.

Directed by William Wyler, and starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier; “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” told the story of the passionate and doomed love story between one Catherine Earnshaw, the daughter of a Yorkshire landowner and an orphaned Gypsy boy named Heathcliff. The story opens with Mr. Earnshaw introducing Heathcliff to his family – Cathy and her brother, Hindley – at Wuthering Heights. While Cathy immediately befriends Heathcliff, Hindley becomes jealous of his father and sister’s high regard of the newcomer. Heathcliff’s pleasant life with the Earnshaw family ends when Mr. Earnshaw dies and a resentful Hindley forces him to become one of the family’s servants.

Despite Heathcliff’s new status within the Earnshaw family, his close relationship with Cathy remains close. Some eight to ten years later, the now adult pair have fallen in love and are meeting secretly on Penniston’s Crag. One night, Cathy and Heathcliff are out when they discover the Earnshaws’ neighbors, the Lintons, giving a party at the Grange. After climbing the garden wall, Cathy is attacked by a dog. The Lintons take Cathy in to care for her and Heathcliff is ordered to leave the Grange. Cathy becomes close with Edgar Linton and entranced by his wealth and glamour, while Edgar falls in love with her. When Edgar decides to propose marriage to Cathy, his action leads to a major fallout between Cathy and Heathcliff, the latter’s departure for United States, his return, jealousy, obsession and in the end, tragedy.

As far as I know, the 1939 film eliminated the second half of Brontë’s novel that centered on the generation featuring Heathcliff and Cathy’s children. This elimination has led many fans of the novel to dismiss this version as a poor adaptation. Well, to each his own. I have never read Brontë’s novel. And this is probably why I have such difficulty in dismissing “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” as unworthy of the novel. The only way I can judge the movie is on its own merits. And quite frankly, I believe it is one of the better costume dramas to be released during Hollywood’s Studio Era.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn assigned his top director, William Wyler, to helm the movie. And Wyler did a superb job. Thanks to his direction, “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” turned out to be an atmospheric and well paced movie filled with superb performances by the cast. Wyler utilized the talents of cinematographer Gregg Toland, along with art designers James Basevi and Alexander Toluboff to re-create the novel’s setting – the brooding Yorkshire moors with exquisite details.

The movie’s most controversial aspect turned out to be Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s screenplay. Many present-day critics believe that the two screenwriters took the bite out of Brontë’s novel by romanticizing Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship. Literary critic John Sutherland accused Wyler, Hecht and MacArthur of portraying Cathy as a more passive character, willing to accept Heathcliff’s abuse. Personally, I cannot help but wonder how he came to this conclusion. My recent viewing of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” recalls a capricious and manipulative Cathy unable to hold back her scorn of Heathcliff in the face of the Lintons’ wealth and glamour; and a Cathy more than determined to prevent Heathcliff and Isabella Linton’s marriage. Not once do I recall a passive Cathy willing to accept abuse from Heathcliff.

Other critics of the movie have also accused Wyler and the two screenwriters of robbing Heathcliff the opportunity to seek revenge against Cathy and the Linton family by deleting the second half of the novel. These same critics seemed to have forgotten that a good deal of the movie’s second half focused not only on Heathcliff’s return to England, but also his efforts to get revenge on both the Earnshaw and Linton families. He did this by acquiring Wuthering Heights from an increasingly dissolute Hindley Earnshaw and more importantly, seeking Isabella Linton’s hand for marriage. The latter finally reached its mark as far as Cathy was concerned. The emotional damage from Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella led to Cathy’s death and tragedy. The biggest criticism that emerged from “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” was Samuel Goldwyn’s decision to set the story in the mid-Victorian era, instead of the novel’s late 18th and early 19th centuries setting. It is believed that Goldwyn made this decision either because he preferred this period in costumes or he was simply trying to save a buck by using old Civil War era costumes. Personally, I could not care less. The novel’s setting was merely accelerated by five to six decades. And since “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” did not utilize any overt historical facts in its plot, I see no reason to get upset over the matter.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” went into production as a vehicle for actress Merle Oberon, who was a contract player at Goldwyn Studios. When Laurence Olivier, her co-star from 1938’s “THE DIVORCE OF LADY X”, was cast as Heathcliff, he campaigned for lover Vivian Leigh to replace Oberon as Catherine Earnshaw. Olivier’s efforts failed and Oberon kept her job. Many critics believe that Leigh would have done a better job. I refuse to accept or reject that belief. However, I was very impressed by Oberon’s performance. She did an excellent job in capturing Cathy’s capricious and shallow nature. Although Oberon had a few moments of hammy acting, she was not as guilty of this as two of her co-stars. I find it rather disappointing that she failed to earn an Academy Award nomination. Her scene with Geraldine Fitzgerald (in which Cathy tries to dampen Isabella’s interest in Heathcliff) and the famous soliloquy that ended with Cathy’s “I am Heathcliff” declaration should have earned her a nomination.

Laurence Olivier made his Hollywood debut in the role of the Gypsy orphan-turned-future owner of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff. Olivier harbored a low opinion of Hollywood and screen acting in general. But Wyler’s exhausting style of directing and tutelage enabled Olivier to drop his penchant for stage theatrics and perform for the camera. Mind you, I do not believe Wyler was not completely successful with Olivier. The actor still managed to display hints of hammy acting in his performance. And he did not seem that successful in his portrayal of a Heathcliff in his late teens or early twenties, in compare to Oberon, who seemed successful in portraying Cathy in that same age group. Regardless, Olivier gave a first-rate performance, and managed to earn the first of his ten Academy Award nominations.

Another performer who earned an Academy Award nomination was Geraldine Fitzgerald, for her performance as Isabella Linton. I cannot deny that she deserved the nomination. Fitzgerald gave a memorable performance as the passionate, naive and outgoing Isabella, who found herself trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage to a man that harbored no love for her. However, I believe that like Olivier, she was guilty of a few moments of histronic acting. I could never accuse David Niven of such a thing. The actor gave a solid performance as the quietly loving, yet privileged Edgar Linton. Flora Robson was superb as the story’s narrator and Cathy Earnshaw’s maid, Ellen Dean. And both Niven and Robson proved to be the production’s backbone by being the only cast members that managed to refrain from any histronic acting altogether. I can also say the same about Hugh Williams’ portrayal of the embittered and dissolute Hindley Earnshaw. Donald Crisp, Leo G. Carroll, Cecil Kellaway and Miles Mander also gave fine support.

I realize that “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” will never be a favorite of the fans of Brontë’s novel. But as a movie fan, I cannot look down at this production. Thanks to William Wyler’s direction, Gregg Toland’s photography, solid adaptation by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and superb acting from a cast led by Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier; it is quite easy to see why it is considered as one of the best examples of Old Hollywood during one of its best years – 1939. I guess I will always be a fan.

Bakewell Pudding

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Below is an article about the dessert known as Bakewell Pudding

BAKEWELL PUDDING

While reading various articles on the Internet about the cuisine of the Victorian Age, every once in a while I would come across one about a dessert known as Bakewell Pudding. The origin of this dish seemed to be a very confusing matter. Most people associate it with the nineteenth century. Yet, some believe this dish actually originated as far back as the medieval era.

Bakewell pudding was originally referred to as a “tart”. The dessert does not date back to the medieval era, but it is the descendant – more or less – of the egg enriched custards of that period. In short, the dessert consists of a flaky pastry base with a layer of sieved jam. It is topped with a filling made of egg and almond paste. Originally the almonds, which is a hallmark of the dessert, were introduced in the form of a few drips of almond essence in the overlaying sugar, egg, and butter mixture, but gradually it became the custom to use ground almonds, thereby radically altering the nature and consistency of the topping.

The pudding originated in the Derbyshire town of Bakewell, England. And yes, it is named after the town. No one is really certain about the dessert’s year of origin. It is believed that Mrs. Greaves had created it at the White Horse Inn in 1820 or 1860. Actually, it was the Inn’s cook who created it . . . thanks to Mrs. Greaves’ instructions. The latter, who was the inn’s landlady, left instructions for the cook to make a jam tart. While making the tart, the cook layered the pastry base with jam and spread the egg and almond paste mixture on top, instead of mixing it into the pastry. When cooked, the egg and almond paste set like an egg custard and the result was successful enough for it to become a popular dish at the inn.

There are a few problems with this origin tale. One, the White Horse Inn was demolished in 1803 for the development of Rutland Square and the construction of the Rutland Arms Hotel. Which means some believe that the pudding was created in the Rutland Arms Hotel kitchen and not the White Horse Inn. Also, a family called Greaves operated the hotel. But a Mrs. Greaves of the White Horse Inn did not exist. And two, English food writer Eliza Acton had written and published a recipe for the pudding in her 1845 cookbook, “Modern Cookery for Private Families”, making the 1860 origin date impossible. However, Acton was not the first to include a recipe for Bakewell Pudding in a cookbook. Historian Alan Davidson claimed that a food writer named Magaret Dobs had included the recipe for the dessert in her 1826 cookbook, “The Cook and Housewife’s Manual”. As it turned out . . . this is not true. However, a recipe for Bakewell Pudding did appear in the 1847 edition of Dobs’ book. One of the earliest published accounts of the dessert can be found in the 1836 issue of The Magazine of Domestic Economy.

As for the true origin of the Bakewell Pudding . . . who knows? However, below is the recipe for Bakewell Pudding from the All Recipies (U.K. Edition) website:

Bakewell Pudding

Ingredients

Puff Pastries sheets (store bought or homemade)
2 Whole Eggs
4 Extra Yolks
180g Butter
180g Castor Sugar
100g Ground Almonds
1tsp Almond Essence
2tbs Lemon Juice
1/4 tsp Ground Cinnamon
1/4 tsp Ground Nutmeg
6-8 Tbs Raspberry Jam or Preserve

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 180 C / Gas 4.
Then separate 4 yolks into a bowl and add two more whole eggs. Beat slightly.
Add the melted butter and caster sugar and mix well.
Finally, stir in the ground almonds, almond essence, lemon juice and spices.
Line a dish about 9″ X 7″ with a sheet of puff pastry.
Spread in the bottom of the pastry a layer of preserve about 1/8″ thick.
Pour the mixture over the preserve into the pastry lined dish.
Put into the preheated oven on a middle shelf for 40 – 45 minutes.
When cooked and browned on top, remove from oven, sprinkle over some extra sugar to give it a glaze and allow to cool.

The dessert can be enjoyed with custard or cream.

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Top Favorite HISTORICAL NOVELS

Below is a current list of my top favorite historical novels: 

 

TOP FAVORITE HISTORICAL NOVELS

1. “North and South” (1982) by John Jakes – This is the first of a trilogy about two wealthy American families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the mid-19th century. This superb novel is set during the two decades before the U.S. Civil War.

 

2. “Flashman and the Redskins” (1982) by George MacDonald Fraser – This excellent novel from the Flashman series picks up where the 1971 novel, “Flash For Freedom” left off . . . with British Army officer Harry Flashman stuck in New Orleans in 1849. He eventually joins a wagon train bound for the California gold fields. The story concludes 27 years later, on the Little Bighorn battlefield.

 

3. “The Wheel of Fortune” (1984) by Susan Howatch – This excellent saga tells the story of a wealthy Anglo-Welsh family named the Goodwins between 1913 and the early 1970s.  Filled with family feuds, traumas, insanity, murder and romance; I regard this as the best of Howatch’s family sagas.

 

4. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – The saga of the Hazards and the Mains continues in this story about their experiences during the U.S. Civil War. I regard this as one of the best Civil War novels I have ever read, despite being underappreciated by some critics.

 

5. “Shadow of the Moon” (1956; 1979) by M.M. Kaye – Set against the backdrop of mid-19th century India and the Sepoy Rebellion, this novel tells the story of a young Anglo-Spanish woman named Winter de Ballesteros and her love for British Army officer, Alex Randall.

 

6. “Voodoo Dreams” (1993) by Jewell Parker-Rhodes – The novel is a fictional account of the famous Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, in early 19th century New Orleans. Despite a slow start, the novel unveiled a very engrossing tale.

 

7. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – This entry in the Flashman series is an account of Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Taiping Rebellion and the March to Pekin in 1860 China. A personal favorite of mine.

 

8. “Centennial” (1974) by James Michner – A superb, multi-generational saga about the history of a small northern Colorado town, between the 1790s and the 1970s. I regard this superb novel as one of Michner’s best.

 

9. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – The first novel in Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles series, this story is about Philip “Charbanneau” Kent, the illegitimate offspring of a French actress and a British nobleman during the years leading to the American Revolution. A personal favorite of mine.

 

10. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald – This fifth entry in the Flashman series follows Harry Flashman’s harrowing adventures during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58. Another one of Fraser’s best, which features plenty of drama, action and some pretty funny moments. A must read.

 

11. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Gettysburg Campaign is considered one of the finest Civil War novels ever written. And I heartily agree.

 

12. “Lonesome Dove” (1985) by Larry McMurty – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story about two former Texas Ranges who lead a cattle drive on a perilous journey from South Texas to Montana in the late 1870s.

Shepherd’s Pie

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Below is an article about the British dish known as Shepherd’s Pie

SHEPHERD’S PIE

One of the most well-known dishes from Great Britain is what could easily be regarded as comfort food – namely Shepherd’s Pie. It is basically a meat pie that came into creation, due to the introduction of a certain vegetable to the British Isles. Meat pies have been a tradition in England since the Middle Ages. Game pie, pot pie and mutton pie were very popular and served in pastry shells or “coffyns”. These pies were usually cooked for hours in a slow oven, and topped with rich aspic jelly and other sweet spices.

But in the 16th century, the Spanish discovered the potato in the New World – somewhere in the Andes Mountains region. However, potatoes could be found anywhere in the Americas from the present-day United States to Chile. The Spanish eventually introduced the potato to the British Isles. But the British did not really embrace the plant until the 18th century. Sometime during that century, Shepherd’s Pie may have been created by some frugal housewife looking for a new way to serve leftover meat to her family. It is also believed that the dish either originated in Northern England or Scotland.

Shepherd’s Pie consisted of minced lamb or mutton that was cooked in a gravy with onions and sometimes vegetables like peas, celery or carrots. The dish was usually topped with a crust made from mashed potatoes. Early cookbooks featured instructions to line the pie dish with more mash potatoes and use any kind of of leftover roasted meat. Recent recipes include the addition of grated cheese on top of the potatoes. Although the dish dates back to the 18th century, the “Shepherd Pie” name originated sometime during the mid-Victorian Age. Another variation of the dish is the “Cottage Pie”, which consisted of minced beef, instead of lamb or mutton. Ironically, its named originated in 1791 . . . decades earlier.

Below is the recipe for Shepherd’s Pie from the Epicurious.com website:

Shepherd’s Pie

Ingredients

*1 tablespoon vegetable oil
*1 large onion, peeled and chopped
*1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
*1 pound ground lamb (or substitute half with another ground meat)
*1 cup beef or chicken broth
*1 tablespoon tomato paste
*1 teaspoon chopped fresh or dry rosemary
*1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
*1 cup frozen peas
*2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
*6 tablespoons unsalted butter
*1/2 cup milk (any fat content)
*Kosher salt to taste

Preparation

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, heat the oil, then add the onion, carrot, and meat. Cook until browned, 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Drain the fat and add the broth, tomato paste, and herbs. Simmer until the juices thicken, about 10 minutes, then add the peas.
4. Pour the mixture into a 1 1/2-quart baking dish; set aside.
5. Meanwhile, bring the potatoes to a boil in salted water. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes; drain.
6. Mash the potatoes with the butter, milk, and salt.
7. Spread them over the meat mixture, then crosshatch the top with a fork.
8. Bake until golden, 30 to 35 minutes.

Tip

• Instead of using a baking dish for the Shepherd’s Pie, keep the filling in the (ovenproof) sauté pan in which you cook it, top with the crust, and bake it all in the oven for a skillet version that won’t dirty another dish.

Dundee Cake

Below is an article on the Scottish dessert known as Dundee Cake

DUNDEE CAKE

For years, I have assumed there was only one kind of fruitcake. As it turned out, I was wrong.

The origin of fruitcake dates back to Imperial Rome. One form of the dessert that has developed over the years is one from Scotland called Dundee Cake. The dessert had originated in nineteenth-century Scotland, as a mass-produced cake by the marmalade company called James Keiller & Son. Keiller’s claimed to be the originator of the term, “Dundee Cake”, but there have been similar fruitcakes produced in Scotland . . . even before the nineteenth-century.

Dundee Cake consists of currants, sultanas almonds and malt whiskey. Sometimes, fruit peel may be added to the recipe. The top of the cake is typically decorated with concentric circles of almonds and glace cherries in the middle of each circle. As I had stated earlier, similar fruitcakes had been produced in Scotland before the nineteenth-century.Queen Mary of Scotland preferred her fruitcake without the cherries, since she did not like the glace fruit.

The cake is sold in supermarkets throughout Great Britain today. It was also produced and marketed in India – before and after its independence from Britain in 1947 by Britannia Industries and its successor firms. However, the cake was withdrawn from Indian markets in 1980. Yet, it continued to be supplied privately as a corporate Christmas gift by the maker. Dundee Cake is traditionally purchased and served for the Christmas holidays. However, Queen Elizabeth II is reported to enjoy the dessert during afternoon tea.

Below is a recipe for Dundee Cake from The Spruce website:

Dundee Cake

Ingredients

5 1/2oz/ 150g butter, slightly softened
5 1/2oz/ 150g soft, dark brown sugar
3 large free-range eggs
Grated zest of 1 large orange
8oz/225g plain flour or all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons mixed spice (Pumpkin Pie mix makes a good alternative)
1 lb/450g dried fruit – sultanas, currants, and raisins
2oz/55g candied peel, chopped
2oz/55g glace cherries, halved (optional)
1 tablespoon malt whisky (or brandy if you prefer)
115g / 4 oz whole blanched almonds

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 300F/150C/Gas 2.

Line an 8½”/22cm cake tin with greaseproof paper or baking parchment and grease lightly with a little butter.

Place both the butter, sugar, and zest into a large roomy baking bowl. Cream the butter into the sugar until light, smooth and creamy using either a fork or electric hand whisk.

Mix the flour with the baking powder and mixed spice. Beat one egg into the creamed butter, then beat in a third of the flour. Repeat until all the eggs and flour are used up.

Add the fruits, citrus candied peel, and cherries (if using) to the mixture and stir well but gently – you don’t want to flatten the cake batter too much – until all the fruits are incorporated into the mixture.

Finally, stir in the whisky using a spoon or spatula.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin and gently level the surface. Cook in the preheated oven for 1½ hours, then arrange the blanched almonds into circles on the top and return the cake to the oven. Cook for another hour or until the cake is a deep, golden brown.

Remove the cake from the oven and place on to a cooling rack and leave the cake to cool in the tin. Once cooled it is ready to eat.

The cake keeps well when stored in an airtight tin.

Notes on Making a Dundee Cake:

Do not rush the baking of this cake, it is high in sugars and fruit and needs the longer slowing baking to make sure it does not burn. If you feel it is browning too quickly lower the heat, all ovens have their own idiosyncracies.

“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.