In August, 1963, the British public could talk about only one thing over their bacon, eggs,toast and orange juice. The topic of the day was a robbery, not just any robbery though. Oh no, this robbery was considered to be the robbery to end all robberies.
Early in the morning of the 8th of August, 1963, sixteen men had held up a Royal Mail train on its way down from Glasgow to London. They boarded the train while it was stopped on a bridge, severely injured the trains driver, Jack Mills by hitting him with a metal bar, and made off with all the cash on board. The grand total they got away with? £2.6 million. At the time, this was the largest money robbery in British history.
Several of the gang were eventually caught and a trial was held in 1964. Two of the gang, Ronnie Biggs and Charlie Wilson escaped prison in daring prison breaks, and they and many others lived abroad for decades. The case is well known here in the UK, but if you’re not familiar with it you can find more about the case, trial, and the gang members themselves online.
The robbery and what happened afterwards sounds like it’s a plot straight out of a film. Fact can be stranger than fiction though, and that is certainly true in this case.
It proved too much of an opportunity to pass up on, and so in 1967, production began in the UK on a film based upon the robbery. It was a rather fictionalised account and peoples names were changed etc, and it didn’t end quite how the real life event did.
The film was directed by Peter Yates (who would go on to great fame as the director of Bullitt), and it was produced by Stanley Baker and Michael Deeley. Baker would also star as the leader of the gang aiming to rob the Royal Mail train of its cash. The films electrifying score was by Johnny Keating, and his music adds so much atmosphere to the film.
Robbery is a tense, gripping and gritty flick. It has you on the edge of your seat throughout and I think it has a very realistic look to it. I also like how the Police are not shown as idiots or the enemy here as is so often the case in films mainly focusing on the criminals. Also we don’t really (well I didn’t anyway)feel like we should be fully on the side of either the cops, or of the criminals, the depiction of what both sides did and went through is well balanced I think. We can envy at the audacity of the plan, and the fact that it works, but we don’t forget these are criminals, nor that the Police have to (and should) do their job to get them.
The first fifteen minutes are some of the most tense I’ve ever seen in a film. The film opens with four criminals setting up a robbery in broad daylight. They set up a gas canister in the car of a man who has a briefcase handcuffed to him. The gas is set to go off at a certain time, it does so knocking out the driver and the man with the case, and causes the car to crash. Three of the gang in a stolen ambulance take the two men out of the car and drive off. In the ambulance they remove the case and some diamonds.
They abandon the ambulance and get into a getaway vehicle, they are spotted by coppers in a passing car who are on the look out for the stolen ambulance, thus begins one of the best car chases in film history. The Police pursue the robbers car at high speed, as the gang try and evade capture. Filmed out on location in and around London streets, this chase had me on the edge of my seat, peeking through my fingers. In some ways this can easily be seen as the warm up for Yates film Bullitt(which features another brilliant car chase.) The bit where the gang get nearer to a London school crossing is edge of your seat stuff.
The film sees Paul Clifton(Stanley Baker)get a crew together to help him rob a Royal Mail train. Clifton has thought every possibility through, and is leaving nothing to chance. He doesn’t bet on the determined Scotland Yard Detective George Langdon (James Booth). Langdon gets to hear interesting info from some of his informers which alerts him to the fact that a big job is about to go down. Langdon and fellow colleagues set about trying to uncover what the job is, and do their best to capture the criminals.
Solid performances can be found throughout by some of the best character actors in British film history.
Stanley Baker is excellent as the tough criminal mastermind who you wouldn’t want to mess with. James Booth (Baker’s co-star in the classic war flick Zulu)steals every scene he is in, as the copper determined to get the gang. Barry Foster, Clinton Greyn, Frank Finlay, George Sewell and William Marlowe all impress as members of Clifton’s crew. Joanna Pettet has a small role as Clifton’s stylish wife, she doesn’t get much to do here, but she does make an impression when she is on the screen.
My favourite scenes are the following. The opening car chase. Frank Finlay’s character being rescued from the prison yard. The line up, where the schoolteacher identifies the man who was driving the speeding car. Clifton’s wife asking him why he has a gun. The train robbery sequence. The discussion at the football match. I also really love the opening title sequence, where the names and credits go backwards, giving us the impression that the train is passing them by.
This is a realistic and thrilling crime film inspired by a incredible true story. I’d also like to say that fans of vintage British cars will be in for a real treat, this film is full of old cars that are sure to bring back happy memories for car lovers.
I highly recommend you see this one on Blu-Ray to see it looking at its best. The Network Blu-Ray release also has lots of very good extras to enjoy, including an interesting interview with Stanley Baker.
Any other fans of this film? Please leave your comments below.