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Film and TV Inspired by The Great Train Robbery


The Great Train Robbery of 1963 was one of the most famous crimes in 20th Century British history. As a result, it inevitably inspired numerous films and TV series, from the factual to the semi-fictionalised to the almost entirely fictional.

At around 3 am on Thursday 8th August 1963, a Royal Mail train travelling overnight from Glasgow to London was halted by a red stop signal near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire. The stop signal was a fake, the signal's green light having been covered with a glove and the signal wired to show a false red light instead.

With the mail train stopped, a gang of 15 men went on board to steal its cargo of £2.6 million in used bank notes. In under 30 minutes the robbers carried off two and a half tons of money in 120 sacks. It was the biggest cash robbery in British history, the haul being the equivalent of about £55 million today, just over $73 million in US dollars.

The press were quick to name it "The Great Train Robbery", and the audaciousness of the crime and the scale of the theft, together with the "Wild West" touch of hijacking a train, meant that the crime caught the public's imagination.

The "Great Train Robbers" even came to be seen as outlaw folk heroes in some quarters, although that image was tainted by the fact that the engine driver, Jack Mills, was beaten during the robbery with an iron bar, causing him serious head injuries.


TV reconstruction of the 1963 Great Train Robbery
The robbery, as portrayed in the 2013 TV drama "The Great Train Robbery"

The crime led to an international manhunt that would span decades. Although most of the robbers were caught, some escaped from prison, and several fled to countries with no extradition treaty with Britain.

The most famous of these was Ronnie Biggs, who was originally arrested and jailed for 30 years. Biggs escaped after just over a year of imprisonment and then went on the run, eventually holing up in Brazil.

Some other members of the gang, including an inside man nicknamed "The Ulsterman" on account of his accent, were never officially identified.

Several film projects were announced in the wake of the robbery, but only a few made it to the screen. Others appeared later and explored both the crime itself and the fate of the criminals in the years afterwards, including Ronnie Biggs, Buster Edwards and the gang's mastermind Bruce Reynolds.

Here, then, is a rundown of the films and TV series that were based on, or inspired by, the Great Train Robbery of 1963.



Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse (1966)

The Great Train Robbery made headlines around the world, as is shown by the appearance of this West German production, one of the earliest screen portrayals of the crime. 

Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse, which translates roughly as "The Gentlemen Ask for Cash" or "The Gentlemen Ask to Check Out", was made by the German broadcaster NDR and originally shown on German television as a three part mini-series.

The series was made in black and white and told the story of the Great Train Robbery in a semi-documentary style. It starred Horst Tappert, Hans Cossy and Gunther Neutze and used fictional characters instead of the real criminals. 

Filming for the series took place in West Germany with some additional filming in Britain. The railway scenes shot in Britain were filmed somewhat covertly, without British Railways being told what the film was actually about.

The series was written by Henry Kolarz and Robert Muller, and directed by John Olden and Claus Peter Witt. Although not very well known outside Germany, it was a big success on German television and still has a following there. The series led to a sequel, Hoopers letzte Jagd ("Hooper's Last Hunt") in 1972.


The train robbery from Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse / The Great British Train Robbery
The train robbery from Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse / The Great British Train Robbery


The Great British Train Robbery (1966)

After its success on German television, Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse was edited down into this feature film version. The film was dubbed into English for the international market and re-titled as The Great British Train Robbery, or in some countries as simply The Great Train Robbery.

The film version doesn't seem to have made much impact internationally, but I think it has turned up on late night British TV, and it was later included as an extra on the Region 2 DVD release of Robbery (see below).


The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery (1966)

This penultimate film in the long-running St. Trinian's comedy series begins with a gang of crooks robbing an overnight mail train of £2.5 million in cash. Hmm. Sounds familiar.

The robbers stash the loot in an empty country house, which is about to be taken over as the new home of the infamous St. Trinian's School. When they realise that their hiding place has been compromised, the gang have to sneak back into the school and get the money out, leading to a frantic train chase finale, with the pupils and staff of St. Trinian's in hot pursuit.

The gang of robbers includes Frankie Howerd and Reg Varney, while their antagonists are led by Dora Bryan (as the school's new headmistress) and George Cole, in his last appearance in the series as the school's shifty fixer "Flash" Harry. The film's railway scenes were filmed on the Longmoor Military Railway in Hampshire.

The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery was the fourth of five films in the original St. Trinian's series, and its plot riffing on the Great Train Robbery made it easily the most topical. It was written by Frank Launder and Ivor Herbert, and directed by Launder and his long time collaborator Sidney Gilliat. The film was produced by Gilliat's brother Leslie.


Barry Foster and Stanley Baker in Robbery
The gang lying low in 1967's "Robbery"

Robbery
 (1967)

For a couple of decades or more Robbery was probably the best known and most high profile portrayal of the Great Train Robbery on screen, at least in English-speaking countries.

The film is a fictionalised version of the story, following the outline of the crime quite closely, but introducing its own cast of criminals. The decision to use fictional characters seems to have been made for legal reasons more than dramatic ones, and an army of lawyers were brought in to approve the script before filming. 

The criminals' ring leader is played by Stanley Baker, a regular star of British crime films in the 1950s and 1960s. The other members of the gang include Barry Foster, Frank Finlay and George Sewell. James Booth (probably best remembered as the malingering Private Hook in Zulu) plays the police Inspector on their trail.

The film is notable for its well handled action scenes, including an excellent high speed car chase that was enough to see director Peter Yates lured to Hollywood to make Bullitt with Steve McQueen.

Robbery was written by Edward Boyd, George Markstein and Peter Yates and produced by Stanley Baker and Michael Deeley for Baker's production company Oakhurst.


Hoopers letzte Jagd (1972)

Hoopers letzte Jagd, which translates as "Hooper's Last Hunt", is a sequel to the West German TV mini-series Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse

The first series had been a big popular success on German television, so NDR followed up with this two part sequel six years later. The co-director of the original series, Claus Peter Witt, returned to direct, and wrote the script with Rudiger Humpert, who has one of the best German names ever. 

Hoopers letzte Jagd sees Max Mairich play police detective Hooper, still on the trail of the fictional train robber played by Horst Tappert. Hooper tracks his quarry down to Mexico, in a story line inspired by the globe-trotting exploits of the real Great Train Robbers, in their efforts to avoid capture and extradition. 


Phil Collins (centre) as Buster Edwards in "Buster"
Phil Collins (centre) as Buster Edwards in "Buster"

Buster (1988)

Buster tells the story of one of the actual Great Train Robbers, Ronald "Buster" Edwards.

Edwards is portrayed in the film as a small time criminal, always short of funds, whose life is changed dramatically by his involvement in the robbery. The film covers Edwards' background in petty crime, his relationship with his wife and child, and their eventual flight to Mexico to escape capture by the police.

Buster is a relatively lightweight romantic caper that presents its protagonist as a lovable rogue. Buster Edwards is played by the singer and musician Phil Collins as a cheeky Cockney chappie, and his wife June by Julie Walters as an ordinary, put-upon wife and mother. June is dragged along by Buster to an unwanted life in hiding in Mexico, where she finds it's far too hot and they don't even serve fish and chips.

The supporting cast features future Eastenders regular Larry Lamb as Bruce Reynolds, and also includes Sheila Hancock, Martin Jarvis and Anthony Quayle. The film was written by Colin Shindler and directed by David Green.

The casting of Phil Collins marks another example of British cinema's peculiar habit of using rock stars to play real life criminals (see also Ned KellyMcVicar and The Krays). Collins assisted the film's prospects by providing a couple of songs, and the film's soundtrack album, a mixture of his songs and contemporary sixties hits, sold well at the time. Collins also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for "Two Hearts", which he co-wrote with Lamont Dozier.


Prisoner of Rio (1988)

The 25th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery led to revived interest in the story, which explains why two films about different members of the gang appeared in the same year, Buster and the more obscure Prisoner of Rio.

Prisoner of Rio focuses on Ronnie Biggs, and his life in hiding in Brazil. Biggs was actually a relatively minor part of the gang of train robbers, but his escape from prison, and decades spent avoiding British justice, helped to turn him into probably its most famous member. Ironically, Biggs wasn't even a very good train robber, his main contribution being to find a driver for the train, something his man proved unable to do. 

Biggs is played in the film by Paul Freeman (yes, the French bad guy from Raiders of the Lost Ark) and his Scotland Yard nemesis, the fictional detective Jack McFarland, by Steven Berkoff. Desmond Llewellyn, familiar as 'Q' in the James Bond films, also puts in an appearance.

Prisoner of Rio presents a sympathetic portrayal of Biggs in exile, probably not surprising as the film was co-written by Biggs himself. The film was directed by the Polish film maker Lech Majewski and written by Majewski, Biggs and Julia Frankel.


Sheridan Smith and Daniel Mays in "Mrs Biggs"
Sheridan Smith and Daniel Mays in "Mrs Biggs"

Mrs Biggs (2012)

This five part TV series tells the story from the point of view of Ronnie Biggs's wife. The series stars Daniel Mays as Ronnie Biggs and Sheridan Smith as his wife Charmian.

Mrs Biggs begins with Charmian meeting Ronnie on a train, appropriately enough, in the early 1960s. At that time Ronnie is only a small time criminal, but the series soon moves onto his involvement in the Great Train Robbery, his imprisonment and escape from Wandsworth Prison and his flight from the law to France, Australia and eventually Brazil.

Mrs Biggs was made for the ITV network in the UK, and was written by true crime specialist Jeff Pope and directed by Paul Whittington. Sheridan Smith won the BAFTA Television Award for Best Actress that year.


The Great Train Robbery (2013)

This two part TV drama was made for the BBC, to mark the fiftieth anniversary year of the Great Train Robbery.

The film details the robbery and its aftermath, from the perspective of both the robbers and the police, in two 90 minute episodes. The first part, A Robber's Tale, tells the story of the planning and execution of the crime. The second part, A Copper's Tale, continues the story, portraying the police investigation and the efforts to capture the criminals.

The other film and TV versions of this story are either fictionalised or focus on one particular member of the gang. So this is the closest to a definitive film version, particularly as it gives equal weight to the police investigation, something that few of the other film or TV dramas deal with in any detail.

The Great Train Robbery features Luke Evans as Bruce Reynolds, Neil Maskell as Buster Edwards and Jack Gordon as Ronnie Biggs. The police are led by Jim Broadbent, Robert Glenister and Nick Moran.

The series was written by Broadchurch creator and future Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall, and directed by Julian Jarrold and James Strong, each directing a different episode.


The Great Train Robbers and piles of cash in "The Great Train Robbery"
Some of the gang in 2013's "The Great Train Robbery", with Bruce Reynolds (Luke Evans) third from left

References to the Great Train Robbery in other films and TV were frequent in the 1960s in particular. Examples include the 1969 comedy The Brain starring David Niven as a criminal mastermind, who is supposedly the man behind the Great Train Robbery.

The 1965 Bond film Thunderball, meanwhile, suggests that the international criminal organisation SPECTRE received a consultancy fee for advice on how to carry out the crime. The early Bond films occasionally indulged in this type of topical joke. In the first film, Dr. No in 1962, a Goya painting shown on the wall of Dr. No's lair is one that had recently been stolen in a high profile robbery, a joke appreciated by some contemporary reviewers.

In a more absurd vein, posters for the 1965 crime film The Big Job, a comedy from the Carry On team, claimed that the job in question was "The Great Drain Robbery".

Also worth mentioning is The First Great Train Robbery from 1978. This crime caper stars Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland as two Victorian crooks who rob a gold bullion train in the 1850s. The film was written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton and based on his novel The Great Train Robbery, which was itself inspired by a real event. The 1963 crime was so famous in the UK that the film had to be given the title The First Great Train Robbery so as not to confuse people, but in the US it reverted to the novel's title, The Great Train Robbery

Let me know if you know of any more films or TV series about the Great Train Robbery that I've missed, and I'll add them to the list.

Comments

  1. Interesting topic. I certainly know Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse. Haven't seen it in a long time but remember it was fun.

    I saw Buster when it came out. Being a fan of Phil Collins I had to see it but was surprised why they would choose a singer to play Edwards instead of a "real" actor.
    Robbery (1967) is one I still have to catch.

    I can't add any more films and shows about the robbery to the list, but there was a pretty good board game based on Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse, which I had and probably still have stored somewhere in a dusty attic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm intrigued by the idea of a Great Train Robbery board game. Hopefully you didn't have to hit anyone on the head.

      I did find an article about a model railway club that has created a layout of the robbery scene, with a model train and miniature vehicles and robbers, which strikes me as charmingly quaint (and very British) and yet somehow also inappropriate.

      The German film does have the best bridge. The train was driven to Bridego Bridge where the money was unloaded. I did consider a nerdy "Best Bridge" comparison, as I thought that would be amusing, although probably not. Their one was apparently in Germany, but more accurate than many of the British ones. Robbery's bridge is a metal job and not like the real one at all, it should be brick. So, if you do watch Robbery, try not to shout at the screen "Your bridge is all wrong!"

      Although Phil Collins does a bit of singing and drumming, he was already an experienced actor when he made Buster, and even had previous movie experience. Surely everyone remembers him in Calamity the Cow?

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsYNoccKrs8


      Delete
    2. Oh my, Calamity the Cow. How come I don't know that? Too cute. But I'm sure I can find more of it on youtube.

      Delete
    3. There are some longer clips on there, including Phil Collins doing some slapstick stuff. Not the whole thing though, sadly.

      Delete

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