The Great Train Robbery

1903, Movie, NR, 12 mins

Review

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Produced by the Edison Company, and directed by Edwin S. Porter, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY is a landmark in the development of the American film industry and the narrative form. If not the very first story film or the first western, it was among the earliest, and certainly the most sophisticated, in its use of editing techniques, special effects, and location shooting to tell a complete story in a western setting, creating many of the archetypes which would later become conventions of the genre.

Two masked bandits enter a train station and force the telegraph operator to send an order to have the approaching train stop and take water. The bandits then bind and gag the operator and jump onto the train along with two other members of their gang. The robbers go into the express car, shoot the messenger, and blow up the safe. Two of the robbers climb on top of the train and try to hold up the engineer and the fireman. A fight breaks out as the train is speeding at 40 miles-per-hour and the fireman is knocked out and thrown off the train. The engineer stops the train and all the passengers are forced off and robbed. The desperadoes jump back onto the train and escape. They get off the train after a few miles and run down a hill to a stream and mount their horses, which were tied up and waiting.

The bound and gagged telegraph operator manages to stand up and telegraph for help by tapping the key with his chin. His daughter arrives with his dinner and unties him. The telegraph operator runs out and goes to a dance hall, where a group of men are forcing a "tenderfoot" to do a jig by shooting at his feet. After the telegraph operator tells the men what has happened, they strap on their guns and go in pursuit of the bandits. The posse chases the bandits down the side of a mountain and shoots one of them. The other three bandits think they have escaped, but the posse suddenly surrounds them and a gun battle ensues. All of the bandits are killed, along with several of the posse.

The leader of the outlaws, a squinty-eyed man with a large, bushy mustache, is seen in close-up. He calmly aims his gun right at the camera and fires two shots. Puffs of smoke fill the frame, and we fade out.

Although a few western vignettes and brief tableaux, such as Edison's own CRIPPLE CREEK BAR (1898) preceded it, the historical importance of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY is how it combined various cinematic techniques with a story that had a beginning, middle, and end, and in doing so, became a paradigm for all future westerns. As historian William K. Everson wrote: "It established the essential pattern of crime, pursuit, showdown, and justice." The events it portrayed may have been largely inspired by the dime novels of the late 19th Century, but it should be noted that at the time it was made, real-life outlaws such as Al Jennings and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were still plying their trade.

Edwin S. Porter was a mechanical expert who manufactured cameras and projectors before going to work for Edison as a producer, director, and photographer. He shot THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY in the woods of Paterson, New Jersey, using the tracks of the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad. The film consists of 15 scenes (in 15 shots), with each shot depicting a single action and featuring no cuts within the scene. The actors are always shown in full, and there are no medium shots or close-ups (except for the isolated final shot of the bandit firing his pistol, which is not part of the story, but was designed to be used as a generic opening or closing, depending on how the exhibitor wished to use it). There are occasional left and right camera pans to follow the action, but no forward or backward movement, apart from the impressively realistic fight scene on top of the train, where the camera is mounted in the back as the train moves down the tracks. The editing is quite adept, with characters briskly exiting one shot and entering the next, lacking the delay time so prevalent in many silent films, and is an early example of the American principle of cutting on action. Porter put his technical training to good use during the fight scene, employing a well-concealed jump cut to substitute a dummy for the fireman who gets tossed off the train, while a couple of shots of moving trains as seen though the window of the telegraph office were achieved by what was most likely the cinema's first use of the matte shot. (One curious note is that in the hand-colored version of the film, the telegraph daughter's coat is tinted bright red in an otherwise colorless shot, and is strikingly similar to an identical effect used 90 years later in SCHINDLER'S LIST.) The film was a tremendous financial success, greatly contributing to the growth of the Nickelodeons, and inspired countless imitations and illegal copies. One of its cast members, Gilbert M. Aronson, later changed his name to G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson, and became a huge western star of the silent era. leave a comment

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