This week one of my favourite Jerry Goldsmith scores, a score that is also in my Top 10, and one of the few examples of having a great score for a very good movie. So, these good reasons to discuss this score this week.
Michael Crichton directed this movie based on his own novel and it was his third collaboration with Jerry Goldsmith. He came across of the story when he was lecturing at Cambridge University, read the transcripts of the court trial and started researching. The story of the novel and the movie is a fictionalised representation of the historical events. 1855, William Pierce stole the gold being shipped to the British Army during the Crimean War. Crichton did not only change the names of the characters slightly, for example, William Pierce is renamed to Edward Pierce, he also changed the plot. Unlike the real incident, the protagonists escape in the end from freedom after the trial. The film was nominated for Best Cinematography Award for the British Society of Cinematographers and for Best Motion Picture by the Edgar Allan Poe award by the Mystery Writers Association of America.
Here is the trailer:
Sean Connery played the role of the Gentleman gangster, Donald Sutherland plays the pickpocket, and the female character is played by Leslie-Anne Down who became very famous as Madeleine in the “North and South” television series with a score by Bill Conti. I already discussed Bill Conti’s score on my website.
Unlike the two previous feature movies Crichton directed – “Westworld” and “Coma” (also with a score by Jerry) – “The Great Train Robbery” is more of a comedy than a dark thriller. While working on “Westworld”, producer Pau Lazarus suggested to Crichton that someone should make a movie about trains. Crichton was first not interested in this topic, but then he read about this train robbery and became interested.
Sean Connery performed most of his own stunts in the film, including the extended sequence on top of the moving train. Connery was told that the train would travel at only 20 miles per hour. Unfortunately, the train crew used an inaccurate means of judging the train's speed. It was driving at 40 to 50 miles per hour. Connery wore soft rubber shoes and the roofs of the carriages were covered with a sandy, gritty surface. Therefore, Connery actually early fell off the train during one jump between two carriages, and had difficulty keeping his eyes free of smoke and cinders from the locomotive. When his wife Michelle saw the movie, she was upset about the dangerous stunts.
The movie received good reviews and was praised for the heist of the gold scenes and the Victoria details. The movie is still enjoyable to watch and a good and early example that Sean Connery can play more than just James Bond.
Before Intrada finally released an extended version of the music with 30 tracks, the score was just available in short version but it soon gained reputation as one of Jerry Goldsmith’s finest work. 1979 was a very good year for Jerry, he also composed the music for the first “Alien” and the first “Star Trek” movie. “The Great Train Robbery” is also one of Jerry’s most light-hearted scores, and the last track “End Title” is one of the fastest tracks Jerry ever composed. I do really love it!
Goldsmith likes to use the rhythm of a waltz in his scores. For the genetic thriller “Boys From Brazil”, in my opinion a really bad movie, he created a very dark one, and now for “The Great Train Robbery”, he used the rhythm of a waltz to underscore the funny moments of the movie. The track “No Respectable Gentleman” is a great example for this.
But there is also a moment when Goldsmith uses the main theme for a dark adaption of the waltz. That is the scene when Clean Willy is killed. The track is called “Dead Willy”. This track was previously unreleased and you can just find it on the extended version. Goldsmith starts with the strings and the piano to build up a haunting atmosphere, the brass come in very soon, and when Willy gets strangled the music erupts with a string movement that reminds a little of “Psycho” after a quieter part before. And when Willy is dead, there is a short note from the trombone.
In an interview Goldsmith said that he generally likes to use music in a very economical way, and this score is a very good example of this theory. The main theme, mostly played by the trombones, is a brilliant piece of music, highly energetic, and composed like a scherzo, and this explains the vibrant attitude of the theme.
In classical music, the scherzo refers to a movement that replaced the minuet as the third movement in a four-movement work such as a symphony or a sonata. Goldsmith uses this musical base to transform the energy and power of a steam train into music, but also uses the brass section to create the music for the darker moments of the score.
Crichton said that for today viewer’s this whole ancient world looks like an alien world, and some critics mentioned that the darker moments of the score are examples of this theory. I do not think so: Goldsmith just knows how to build suspense, and the brass section is very often used for this. John Williams, for example, is also using the brass section for underscoring the violent moments in “Jurassic Park”. How talented Goldsmith is in bringing suspense into a scene, you can watch in the thrilling “75 seconds” when Sutherlands takes wax imprints of the keys in the station. You can find the scene here, and the track on the album is called “Double Wax Job”.
Goldsmith said in an interview that it was only natural for him to record the music in Britain: “It was terrific for me. I said to Crichton: “Can you imagine a bunch of Americans doing a piece of Victorian history? Mind they don’t throw us out there!”
Comparing the number of themes in this score, “The Great Train Robbery” is based on just one, but the composer is able to develop this theme through the score, so you do not get bored listen to it. He even composed a Baroque-inspired variation of the main theme in the track “No Respectable Gentleman”, you can hear from 1'10 with the spinet. Additionally, we have a love theme in the music to underscore the seductive and romantic parts of the movie (“Breakfast in bed” or “We go to Paris”).
On the expanded CD, you can hear different versions of the same cues and can learn how Goldsmith was playing with his material by trying to find the best fit. One of the best scenes is “When The Gold Arrives”. If you watch carefully, you can see clearly that Connery nearly dripped from the train. This track is a fabulous example how music can underscore victory: When Connery is throwing the gold out of the train, the cymbals are played, and we all understand that the stealing of the gold is successful and all the big effort was finally worth it.
With the track “Torn Coat”, we hear that Connery’s victory was just a temporary one because he got caught. When he is later able to escape from court, we hear the finally eruption of the marvellous main theme in the “End Title”. I found a very nice piano version of the “End Title”:
I was not able to find a single track with the End Title on YouTube. Therefore, I added a suite that demonstrates the elegance of the score, sometimes really like classical music, and with the “End Title” music later in it.
“The Great Train Robbery” is one of Goldsmith’s most elegant scores, highly dynamic and exciting, and marvellous orchestrated. The main theme is one of the best themes Goldsmith ever composed, and the whole score so full of energy that you really have to admire Goldsmith’s composing talent! This kind of soundtracks are sadly not composed anymore.
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