Michael Chrichton's The Great Train Robbery on DVD

Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Lesley-Anne Down. Directed by Michael Crichton. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, monaural). 111 minutes. 1979. MGM Home Entertainment 907149. PG. $24.98.

As we learn from writer/director Michael Crichton's audio commentary, what sets The Great Train Robbery apart from most other caper movies is its exacting re-creation of 1850s England. However, Crichton's novel and screenplay have taken quite a bit of poetic license with the actual train robbery on which both are based. Crichton has dressed up the story to make the characters appeal to the audience, turning them into heroes of a sort.

The Great Train Robbery is the story of Edward Pierce, a gentleman thief who masterminds a plan to steal a shipment of British gold from a moving train. In the 1850s, this was a feat never before accomplished. Pierce's complicated plan requires that he and his accomplices gain access to four safe keys, stored in three separate places, then duplicate the keys without anyone's knowledge. Much of the film centers on the lengths our band of robbers go to to duplicate the keys. While the preliminaries turn out to be great fun, the climactic train robbery is sensational.

Sean Connery gives a delightfully engaging performance as Pierce---he's obviously a rogue, but in Connery's capable hands the character is irresistible. Not only does Connery deserve praise for his performance, his stunt work in the film is exemplary. Yes, Connery does all his own stunts during the train robbery, which necessitated that he crawl around atop the moving train, which sometimes was moving in excess of 55 miles per hour.

In addition to Connery's fine work, Donald Sutherland's tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Agar, Pierce's chief accomplice, creates its own bit of screen magic. Not to be overlooked is Lesley-Anne Down's contribution, as she slips easily into the multiple guises required.

The Great Train Robbery is offered in a widescreen transfer that frames the film quite close to its proper 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The framing appears correct, without anything noticeable being lost from the edges of the image. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth deployed smoke, and perhaps diffusion lenses, to give The Great Train Robbery a soft, antique look. Because of this stylized look, the film is not a demonstration-quality disc. Even if the DVD was mastered from a new transfer that included anamorphic enhancement, it's doubtful The Great Train Robbery could be made to look much different from this presentation.

This transfer is a fairly accurate reproduction of the film's cinematography; the image is detailed, just not sharp. Colors tend to favor earth tones, with an emphasis on browns and golden hues. Though flesh tones appear somewhat pale, this is probably a pretty accurate depiction of the English during the mid-19th century. There were several instances where film grain was apparent, but these were confined to brief shots. Digital compression artifacts were held to a manageable level, which is impressive; the film's cinematography offered numerous challenges to the technician authoring the DVD.

The film's early Dolby Surround soundtrack has been upgraded to full Dolby Digital 5.1 status, with pleasant results. The strongest component on the soundtrack is Jerry Goldsmith's rich score, which seems to have greater breathing room in Dolby Digital. Dialog reproduction on the track is crisp and focused, while the discrete channels are effectively deployed to lend the film atmosphere. Directional effects are used sparingly for most of the film, though the track is fairly active during the train robbery itself. The DVD features animated menus from which one can access a theatrical trailer, as well as Crichton's interesting audio commentary.