The year is 1855 and the British Army are fighting the Crimean War; they are paid in gold which is transported by train, and the authorities are satisfied that there can be no way any criminals can break into the safe and steal the precious contents. There are four keys to be used, for a start, two kept at the railway station and the other two kept by officials, one on his person the whole time. Therefore if someone was foolhardy enough to try and rob the train, there appears to be no possible way they could get away with it, as nobody has ever stolen from a moving train before. But Edward Pierce (Sean Connery) has other ideas...
The First Great Train Robbery was actually based on a true story, but really belonged to that run of heist movies that the nineteen-seventies produced, no matter what the facts of the original case were. What the film did have in its favour was its writer and director Michael Crichton's attention to period detail; it was a pleasure to simply watch the camera glide through busy Victorian streets all lovingly recreated down to the costumes the cast wore and the dialogue they spout. There were a few slip-ups, but leave those to the nitpickers as everyone else would be carried along by the charm of what could have been a dry, academic exercise.
That this was more of a romp was due to a cast who were well aware of how to pitch the tone just right and a witty script that was not afraid to turn bawdy in places. It's apparent that this is pretty much a fantasy version of a heist movie - nothing supernatural, but few would have so much fun pulling off the real thing, even in 1855. Heading that cast is Connery as a gentleman about town who never does come up with an entirely satisfactory reason for his illegal endeavour, even his explanation at the end sounds like a throwaway quip, but you get the impression he doing this as much for the sense of achievement it will offer him should he be a success at it than for the amount of gold that is at stake.
Connery has an insouciance that registers well, and does not have the audience taking it too seriously; it's easy to underestimate how tricky this kind of thing is to accomplish with the degree of flair Crichton and company manage here, yet unlike the plans in the story, none of it looks like the hard work it must have been. Backing up the star are a selection of capable hands, including Pierce's right hand man Agar (Donald Sutherland), a master thief who makes the all-important keys and has to get into various scrapes to get copies of the originals, and Pierce's girlfiriend Miriam, played by Lesley Anne-Down in possibly her best film role as a mistress of disguise and loyal companion who finds herself in compromising positions for the sake of the schemes.
This whole heist takes a lot of preparation, and The First Great Train Robbery would be no fun if it all went perfectly swimmingly for our anti-heroes, so Crichton throws plenty of obstacles in their way. The opening half of the film is largely taken up with getting impressions of those safe keys for Agar to fashion duplicates of them, and if you begin to muse over how this seems to be more trouble than it's worth, then the ingenuity on display makes up for that. With only a murder presented so casually as to be a misstep, everything else finds a pleasing tone, so that when we do get to the sequences on the train, you feel as if the criminals have earned a shot at success. Connery performed quite a few of his own stunts, which makes some of them alarming when you see how easily he could have fallen off the top of those carriages, but otherwise there's a cosiness to the thrills that speaks to Sunday afternoon viewing satisfaction. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.