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Literature / The Great Train Robbery

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The Great Train Robbery is a 1975 crime and historical novel written by Michael Crichton. It tells the story of the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, a massive gold heist, which takes place on a train traveling through Victorian-era England on May 22, 1855. Most of the story takes place in London, England.

In 1854, Edward Pierce, a charismatic and affluent "cracksman" or master thief, makes plans to steal a shipment of gold worth more than twelve thousand pounds being transported monthly from London to the Crimean War front. He faces enormous obstacles as the bank has taken strict precautions, including locking the gold in two heavy safes, each of which has two locks, thus requiring a total of four keys to open. He recruits Robert Agar, a "screwsman" or specialist in copying keys, as an accomplice. He spends an entire year preparing for the heist, before he finally makes his move on May 22, 1855. Even though he and his accomplices get the gold, things end up falling apart afterwards.

A 1978 film adaptation (titled The First Great Train Robbery outside of the U.S., presumably to distinguish it from the silent 1903 Western film) (and possibly to avoid confusion among British audiences and others who might think of a real-life British train robbery in 1963) was directed by Crichton himself. It starred Sean Connery as Pierce and Donald Sutherland as Agar.

The book and film provide examples of:

  • Action Prologue: A fight between a guard and a man trying to rob the Crimean gold, who ends up being killed via bring tossed off the high-speed train (and Pierce then passes the body by. Avoids being a invokedBig-Lipped Alligator Moment via a conversation between Pierce and the organizers of the gold transport, showing that this is a semi-regular occurrence and that the measures in place make stealing the gold an Impossible Mission). In the book it's further implied that Pierce himself hired the man to probe the train's defenses.
  • Adapted Out: The film omits most of the final act of the novel, including Agar's mistress ratting the heist team out, and Agar ratting Pierce out because he's being threatened to be sent to Australia.
  • Anti-Hero: Edward Pierce is a professional burglar who poses as a gentleman.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The film adaptation has a "happier" ending than the novel, with Miriam and Agar masterminding Pierce's escape after his trial and, to all extents and purposes, escaping successfully from the pursuers, ready to disappear with their new wealth.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Part of the Widow's Weeds scam (and done to prevent anybody from looking too closely at the "corpse"): Miriam "casually" mentions that her husband died of cholera when the policemen open the coffin. Obviously horrified at the possibility of infection, they stop checking.
  • Bodybag Trick: Agar hides inside a coffin to gain access to the train's vault.
  • The Caper: The story is about a group a thieves who plan to steal gold from a train.
  • Caper Crew:
    • Pierce is the Mastermind. He finds the target. He gathers the crew. He plans everything.
    • Miriam is the Distraction. She distracts Fowler twice (in the brothel and in the train).
    • Barlow is the Muscle. He kills Clean Willy.
    • Burgess, a train guard, is the Inside Man.
    • Clean Willy and Agar are Burglars. Clean Willy is an expert in infiltration and Agar is a master in making false keys to open safes.
  • Captain Obvious: Pierce at trial.
Judge: Now, on the matter of motive, we ask you: Why did you conceive, plan and execute this dastardly and scandalous crime?
Pierce: I wanted the money.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Certain aspects of Victorian England are downright bizarre by modern standards, on top of being classist, sexist and racist, to the point that the novel requires several infodumps (admittedly a standard thing to find in a Michael Crichton novel) to explain them.
  • Discouraging Concealment: The team's Safe Cracking expert is smuggled aboard the train's cargo car (where the safe with the gold is located) by placing him inside of a coffin. The coffin is prevented from being searched by the police by having the team's Femme Fatale (pretending to be his widow) loudly proclaim in the station that he died of cholera.
  • Drunk Rolling: Eighteen months after the robbery, Agar's mistress is caught in the act of robbing a drunk and informs on Agar to escape imprisonment.
  • Face Death with Dignity: The unnamed woman being executed while Clean Willy escapes is cool as a cucumber as she approaches the gallows.
  • Gentleman Thief: Pierce, after a fashion. While not lacking in manners, most of his "gentleman" features are there to facilitate him getting closer to the people who deal with the gold's protection, and listen in on potential weaknesses in security while talking to them.
  • Great Escape:
    • "Clean Willy"'s getaway from prison, via climbing up the wall while everybody else is distracted by a random hanging.
    • Also Pierce's escape from the cops during the final scene of the film and novel.
  • Hope Spot: Clean Willy runs away from Pierce and, hiding just inside a building, hears footsteps coming down the stairs from the upper floor. He's visibly relieved to see it's just a rubber ball bouncing down the stairs, and leans back against a wall. And Barlow reaches through a nearby window from the outside, grabs him by the throat and chokes him to death.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: In the film, Donald Sutherland doesn't seem to be attempting a British accent, in spite of all the British slang his character uses.
  • Plot Coupon: The thieves have to collect four keys before robbing the gold.
  • Properly Paranoid: Edward Pierce makes it a point to never really trust anybody. It turns out that he was right, because Robert Agar eventually sells him out to the police.
  • Spanner in the Works:
    • "Clean Willy" (an expert at climbing and a compulsive pickpocket) being caught doing the latter after he escaped prison and him ratting on Pierce's plan in order to get a deal is the first moment that the police even know that the robbery scheme exists, and thus up the security of the wagon. Pierce has Willy killed after dodging a police sting using Willy as bait.
    • In a minor way, Pierce not considering the possibility of his clothes getting soot on during the robbery leads to him switching clothes with Agar, and the coat is tight enough that it rips while he's on the station, drawing the attention of the police who identify him.
    • In the novel's final act, it's Agar's mistress that rats the team out, because she was caught robbing a drunk, thus leading them to be captured after a perfect heist.
  • Suspiciously Clean Criminal Record: In the film, Pierce about Edgar Trent's clean lifestyle and strict adherence to his daily routine: "No upstanding gentleman is that upstanding.". He's correct when he discovers Trent's hobby of rat-baiting.
  • Thieves' Cant: The criminal jargon spoken by the underclass in Victorian England could be incomprehensible, even to the ordinary residents of Victorian England. Police detectives and judges often had to have a translator handy, just so they could understand what some informant or witness was saying (even when the person in question was genuinely trying to speak clearly; the trials themselves had to be repeatedly interrupted for translations).
  • Train Job: The title is The Great Train Robbery and there is a reason for it.
  • Troll:
    • Pierce is "casually outrageous" at his trial, brazenly stating his intent to escape and insulting Lord Cardigan, referring to him as "Mr. James Brudenell" and stating that Cardigan's stupidity on the battlefield was a crime far more worthy of hanging than anything he himself had done.
    • Pierce does this by being completely truthful in the film.
Judge: Why did you conceive, plan, and execute, this dastardly and scandalous crime?
Pierce: I wanted the money.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The Great Gold Robbery of 1855 did happen in real life. However, a number of details are changed in this story, such as Robert Agar. In this book, Robert Agar was an unintelligent lackey, but the real life version actually masterminded much of the robbery and got away with minor punishment.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: In the novel.
  • Widow's Weeds: To gain access to the vault, where a traveling corpse would be stored, Miriam wears a black dress and veil to help convince the conductor her husband is dead.

Alternative Title(s): The Great Train Robbery 1978