GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, THE
(Edwin S. Porter, 1903, USA, 12m, BW)
GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, THE (Edwin S. Porter, 1903, USA, 12m, BW)
Run time 12 minutes 2 seconds
Producer Edwin S Porter
Production Company Edison Manufacturing Company
Audio/Visual sound, color
The Great Train Robbery is a 1903 American silent short Western film written, produced, and directed by Edwin S. Porter, a former Edison Studios cameraman. Actors in the movie included Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson and Justus D. Barnes, although there were no credits. Though a Western, it was filmed in Milltown, New Jersey. The film was inspired by Scott Marble's 1896 stage play.
At twelve minutes long, The Great Train Robbery film is considered a milestone in film making, expanding on Porter's previous work Life of an American Fireman. The film used a number of then-unconventional techniques, including composite editing, on-location shooting, and frequent camera movement. The film is one of the earliest to use the technique of cross cutting, in which two scenes are shown to be occurring simultaneously but in different locations. Some prints were also hand colored in certain scenes. Techniques used in The Great Train Robbery were inspired by those used in Frank Mottershaw's British film A Daring Daylight Burglary, released earlier in the year. Film historians now largely consider The Great Train Robbery to be the first American action film and the first Western film with a "recognizable form". In 1990, The Great Train Robbery was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Filmed in November 1903 at Edison's New York studio, at Essex County Park in New Jersey, and along the Lackawanna railroad and released in December 1903, "The Great Train Robbery" is considered to be one of the first significant early US narrative films. Greatly influenced by the British film "Daring Daylight Robbery" (1903) it introduced many new cinematic techniques (cross cutting, double exposure, camera movement and location shooting) to American audiences. It was directed by Edwin S Porter and stars Justus D. Barnes as the head bandit, G. M. Anderson as a slain passenger and a robber, Walter Cameron as the sheriff.
From the Edison Film Catalogue 1904:
This sensational and highly tragic subject will certainly make a decided `hit' whenever shown. In every respect we consider it absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made. It has been posed and acted in faithful duplication of the genuine `Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West, and only recently the East has been shocked by several crimes of the frontier order, which fact will increase the popular interest in this great Headline Attraction.
Scene 1 - Interior of railroad telegraph office. Two masked robbers enter and compel the operator to set the `signal block' to stop the approaching train, also making him write an order to the engineer to take water at this station....
Scene 2 - At the railroad water tank. The bandit band are seen hiding behind the tank as a train stops to take water (according to false order). Just before she pulls out they stealthily board the train between the express car and the tender.
Scene 3 - Interior of express car.... the two robbers have succeeded in effecting an entrance. They enter cautiously. The messenger opens fire on them. A desperate pistol duel takes place, in which the messenger is killed. One of the robbers stands watch while the other tries to open the treasure box. Finding it locked, he searches the messenger for the key. Not finding it, he blows the safe up with dynamite....
Scene 4 - The fight on the tender. This thrilling scene was taken from the mail car showing the tender and interior of locomotive cab, while the train is running forty miles an hour....
Scene 5 - The train uncoupled....
Scene 6 - Exterior of passenger coaches. The bandits compel the passengers to leave coaches with hands aloft, and line up along the tracks. One of the robbers covers them with large pistols in either hand, while the others ransack travelers' pockets. A passenger makes an attempt to escape, but is instantly shot down....
Scene 7 - The escape. The desperadoes board the locomotive with their booty, command the engineer to start his machine, and disappear in the distance.
Scene 8 - Off to the mountains. The robbers bring the engine to a stop several miles from the scene of the `Hold Up,' and take to the mountains.
Scene 9 - A beautiful scene in a valley. The bandits come down the side of a hill on a run and cross a narrow stream. Mounting their horses, which were tied to nearby trees, they vanish into the wilderness.
Scene 10 - Interior of telegraph office. The operator lies bound and gagged on the floor. After a desperate struggle, he succeeds in standing up. Leaning on the table, he telegraphs for assistance by manipulating the key with his chin, and then faints from exhaustion. His little daughter enters.... cuts the ropes, and, throwing a glass of water in his face, restores him to consciousness. Arising in a bewildered manner, he suddenly recalls his thrilling experience, and rushes forth to summon assistance.
Scene 11 - Interior of a dance hall.... typical Western dance house scene.... Suddenly the door opens and the half dead telegraph operator staggers in. The crowd gathers around him, while he relates what has happened.... The men secure their guns and hastily leave in pursuit of the outlaws.
Scene 12 - The posse in pursuit. Shows the robbers dashing down a rugged mountain at a terrible pace, followed closely by a large posse, both parties firing as they proceed. One of the desperadoes is shot....
Scene 13 - The remaining three bandits, thinking they had eluded their pursuers, have dismounted from their horses.... and begin to examine the contents of the mail bags.... The pursuers, having left their horses, steal noiselessly down upon them until they are completely surrounded. A desperate battle then takes place. After a brave stand, all of the robbers and several of the posse bite the dust.
Scene 14 - Realism. Full frame of Barnes, leader of the outlaw band, taking aim and firing point blank at the audience. (This effect was gained by foreshortening in making the picture). "The resulting excitement is great. This section of the scene can be used either to begin the subject or to end it, as the operator may choose. Remastered, tinted and new soundtrack added in 2010.
The film opens with two bandits breaking into a railroad telegraph office, where they force the operator at gunpoint to have a train stopped and to transmit orders for the engineer to fill the locomotive's tender at the station's water tank. They then knock the operator out and tie him up. As the train stops it is boarded by the bandits—now four. Two bandits enter an express car, kill a messenger and open a box of valuables with dynamite; the others kill the fireman and force the engineer to halt the train and disconnect the locomotive. The bandits then force the passengers off the train and rifle them for their belongings. One passenger tries to escape, but is instantly shot down. Carrying their loot, the bandits escape in the locomotive, later stopping in a valley where their horses had been left.
Meanwhile, back in the telegraph office, the bound operator awakens, but he collapses again. His daughter arrives bringing him his meal and cuts him free, and restores him to consciousness by dousing him with water.
There is some comic relief at a dance hall, where an eastern stranger is forced to dance while the locals fire at his feet. The door suddenly opens and the telegraph operator rushes in to tell them of the robbery. The men quickly form a posse, which overtakes the bandits, and in a final shootout kills them all and recovers the stolen mail.
Justus D. Barnes. leader of the outlaw band, taking aim and firing point blank at the audience.
An additional scene of the film is a close up of the leader of the bandits, played by Justus D. Barnes, who empties his pistol point blank into the camera. Although it is usually placed at the end, Porter stated that the scene could also appear at the beginning of the film.
In the 1990 film Goodfellas the final shot of Tommy shooting at the camera was taken from this film.
Porter's film was shot at the Edison studios in New York City, on location in New Jersey at the South Mountain Reservation, part of the modern Essex County Park system, as well as along the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. Filmed during November 1903, the picture was advertised as available for sale to distributors in December of that same year.
Alfred C. Abadie as Sheriff
Broncho Billy Anderson as Bandit / Shot Passenger / Tenderfoot Dancer
Justus D. Barnes as Bandit Who Fires At Camera
Walter Cameron as Sheriff
Donald Gallaher as Little boy
Frank Hanaway as Bandit
Adam Charles Hayman as Bandit
John Manus Dougherty, Sr. as Fourth bandit
Marie Murray as Dance-hall dancer
Mary Snow as Little girl
George Barnes (uncredited)
Morgan Jones (uncredited)
Release and reception
The Great Train Robbery had its official debut at Huber's Museum in New York City before being exhibited at eleven theaters elsewhere in the city. In advertising for the film, Edison agents touted the film as "...absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made" as well as a "...faithful imitation of the genuine 'Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West..." The film's budget was an estimated $150. Upon its release, The Great Train Robbery became a massive success and is considered one of the first Western films. It is also considered one of the first blockbusters and was one of the most popular films of the silent era until the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915.
Motion pictures, do, exist in time as well as space, and the major problem for early filmmakers was the establishment of temporal continuity from one shot to the next. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) is widely acknowledged to be the first narrative film to have achieved such continuity of action. Comprising 14 separate shots of noncontinuous, nonoverlapping action, the film contains an early example of parallel editing, two credible back, or rear, projections (the projection from the rear of previously filmed action or scenery onto a translucent screen to provide the background for new action filmed in front of the screen), two camera pans, and several shots composed diagonally and staged in depth—a major departure from the frontally composed, theatrical staging of Méliès.
The industry's first spectacular box-office success, The Great Train Robbery is credited with establishing the realistic narrative, as opposed to Méliès-style fantasy, as the commercial cinema's dominant form. The film's popularity encouraged investors and led to the establishment of the first permanent film theatres, or nickelodeons, across the country. Running about 12 minutes, it also helped to boost standard film length toward one reel, or 1,000 feet (305 metres [about 16 minutes at the average silent speed]). Despite the film's success, Porter continued to practice overlapping action in such conventional narratives as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903) and the social justice dramas The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1905). He experimented with model animation in The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) and The Teddy Bears (1907) but lost interest in the creative aspects of filmmaking as the process became increasingly industrialized. He left Edison in 1909 to pursue a career as a producer and equipment manufacturer. Porter, like Méliès, could not adapt to the linear narrative modes and assembly-line production systems that were developing.
"The most widely viewed picture of its time."
Former Edison Company cameraman Edwin S. Porter ("The Eternal City"/"The House of Cards"/"The Gay Shoe Clerk") directs this groundbreaking American cinema classic that's based on the 1896 story by Scott Marble. It was filmed at Edison's New York studio, at Essex County Park in New Jersey, and along the Lackawanna railroad. The ten minute film was silent with no intertitles.
Three robbers knock unconscious and tie up a station agent and board a train when it stops to water. They rob the postal car, and force open the safe. They then force the engineer to stop, and kill him when he resists. They throw his body onto the tracks (an obvious dummy). They make the passengers stand by the tracks and rob them all, and board the now uncoupled engine and move forward. They jump off and escape into the woods by horseback. A little girl finds the station agent, and the locals are alerted at a dance hall. They form a posse and track the gang down in the woods, and kill all of them.
This was the second western made, but because of its innovations such as movement, crosscutting and a coherent plot, it became a huge success when it opened in New York (the most widely viewed picture of its time). It might have cost only $250 to make (some say $2,500). When viewed today its primitive state must be taken into consideration and for the viewer to remember that audiences at the time were overwhelmed because they had never experienced something like that before. 'Broncho Billy' plays a nervous passenger, while Justus D Barnes plays the brazen gang leader who fires his guns at the audience in the end.
While this is far from the first Edison film, it seems like the best place to start a discussion of the Studio, as it was undeniably their biggest blockbuster hit. It represents a high-water mark for the studio in terms of innovation and artistic success as well, I’d say. It was directed by Edwin S. Porter, who was in charge of motion picture production at Edison and was its main director from 1899 until 1909. At this point, due to Edison’s patent lawsuits against rivals, Porter had a claim as “the” legitimate American filmmaker. In this movie, he shows himself a master of early film narrative, a rival for Méliès, whose masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon” came out the previous year.
“The Great Train Robbery” is in many ways more sophisticated, in its use of moving camera, clever editing, and realistic action sequences, although it lacks the elaborate set pieces and camera trickery of Méliès. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether or not to call this “the first Western” or even if it’s a Western at all, since trains were robbed by men on horseback in the East as late as 1903. To me, it feels like a proto-Western anyway, due to the costumes, the style of action which closely follows “Wild West Shows” of the period and the theme of desperate bandits against a posse of lawful gunmen. If it wasn’t the first, it was surely influential on the Western genre that followed.
The review I found was complimentary (three stars, if I remember). It spoke of the film’s influence—the most famous product of Thomas Edison’s New Jersey-based movie studio; considered by some to be the first Western; the first blockbuster, played for years after its release by distributors looking to spike their attendance figures. The review ended with this (paraphrased) line: “Today, of course, the film must be viewed with sympathy.”
‘With sympathy.’ You could almost see the bland regret on the reviewer’s face, before he left his chair for a sandwich and a Godard marathon. It hurt me. As a silent movie fan, I want to believe greatness is everlasting. The failure of a once-formidable blockbuster to move modern audiences is akin to a fall from grace. It’s ignoble. But The Great Train Robbery is more than a curious antique, I think.
Its title is a descriptor. It is a robbery caper that begins the instant the title screen goes black, with a pair of robbers bursting into a telegraph station, and binding and gagging the railway dispatcher. They use his equipment to stop a train at a secluded water tower along its route. Other members of the gang board the train, detach the engine from the passenger cars, and rob the passengers. Director Edwin S. Porter produced a film that is, at twelve minutes, unusually long for its time; it has a fully developed narrative and distinguishable characters, or at least character types—robbers, posse-members, railway workers and assorted civilians. The Great Train Robbery also features rudimentary cross-cutting (that is, cutting from one scene to another to suggest simultaneity and to build suspense); film narratives prior to this were usually linear, and if the director chose to portray two events occurring at the same time, he simply showed them from start to finish, in succession.
But much of this boils down to film history--in effect, praising the film for not looking so old to modern eyes. What’s The Great Train Robbery really like? What are its artistic achievements, irrespective of the time in which it was filmed?
The Great Train Robbery is set apart by its mixture of archaic and modern. Particularly the sharp contrast between traditional stagecraft and more experimental film techniques. It’s a quilt. Its opening scene is an obvious set with a painted clock over the telegrapher’s head; actors are filmed at a distance equivalent to that between the stage and a good seat in a big theatre. Gestures are dramatic and outsized. But to the right is a large window, and through it we see other trains passing by. This is not a set piece—it’s footage. Porter’s use of double exposure brings reality to the scene, even though the room itself is an obvious cartoon.
The next scene presents complete juxtaposition, as we move from a set to an outdoor location with a real water tower. And then we’re back to artifice, as the criminals board the express car (where any loot would be stored) and shoot the messenger. The train car is another flat backdrop; the curvature of its roof is a trick of perspective. But the loading door of the car is open, and through it we can see real trees speeding by.
In what must have been, for the time, a remarkable shot, we next see the robbers overpower the conductor atop the engine, while the train is moving. We’re again looking at the real thing, and continue to as the train halts,and the passengers pour out in a great herd, hands high, waiting to be robbed.
The robbery scene highlights Porter’s main artistic weakness: the obsessive need to film events in their entirety, even when snippits would have told the story. On stage, this scene would have been punctuated with dialogue to keep our attention. But here, filmed with an immobile camera set at long range, it makes us fidget. Yet it shows inspiration, too. The crowd of passengers is immense, but they flow out of the train car like the contents of a cracked piñata—which, for the robbers, is exactly what they are.
The thieves pull away in the engine, abandon it down the line and head for their hideout in the woods. This is another outdoor scene, following the thieves as they skip down the valley with their stolen goods, across logs and over brooks. The camera moves to keep them in frame—stiffly, yes, but at least it’s moving. That was rare for 1903.
From these outdoor scenes we return again to the stage. The telegrapher, still bound face down on the floor of his office, is saved by the arrival of his young daughter. She’s dressed in vibrant, oscillant purple—the product not of Porter’s art, but a painter’s, who hand-coloured the film cells that make up this print.
The telegrapher alerts the locals to what has happened—interrupting a square dance attended by women in painted yellow dresses, jigging in front of a painted stove. A posse is formed and the robbers are gunned down in the hideout, amid explosions of bright red and orange.
There’s one last scene, of course—the one for which The Great Train Robbery is today most famous. With the criminals finished off in the forest, Porter cuts to a close-up of one more varmint, looking straight at the camera. He raises his pistol, and fires at the audience.
Were theatregoers of the time ‘thrilled’ or ‘terrified’ by this? Some probably were. Had the audience been more accustomed to films, it’s said, they would not have reacted so strongly. But too many people describe the scene as though its value lies solely in shock. Its power lies not simply in its capacity to break the fourth wall; it is the film’s only close-up, and as such, pulls us violently from our positions as passive observers. We were content to watch the murders, safe in our distance from them—now, we’re being gunned down ourselves. This is Porter’s finest piece of juxtaposition, and for this bit of art, at least, The Great Train Robbery may reject the sympathetic eye.
In popular culture
The success of The Great Train Robbery inspired several similar films including: The Bold Bank Robbery (1904) and The Hold-Up Of The Rocky Mountain Express (1906), and another Edwin S. Porter film The Life of an American Cowboy (1906).
Edwin S. Porter also made a parody of The Great Train Robbery titled The Little Train Robbery (1905), with an all-child cast in which a larger gang of bandits holds up a mini train and steal their dolls and candy.
In the 1966 Batman TV Series episode entitled "The Riddler's False Notion", silent film star Francis X. Bushman guest stars as the wealthy film collector who owns a print of The Great Train Robbery.
In the last episode of season three of Breaking Bad, the closing scene is of Jesse Pinkman pointing his gun at the camera and firing into it as a homage of the ending to the film.
According to media historian James Chapman, the gun barrel sequence featured in the James Bond films are similar to the scene featuring of Justus D. Barnes firing at the camera. The sequence was created by Maurice Binder.
The final scene of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, in which the character Tommy shoots at the camera, recreates this film's final scene as a homage.
In the Netflix series Bojack Horseman, Princess Carolyn has a number of conversations with Lenny Turteltaub, an old-timer in show business. As such, he regularly inserts references to meetings he had with other famous stars and filmmakers from cinema's early days, including Buster Keaton and Lionel Barrymore. During one conversation, he states: "As I said to Ed Porter at the premier of 'The Great Train Robbery,' 'Aggh! The train's coming right at me!'" The reference is being confused, however, with L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat by the Lumière Brothers. The confusion comes from the fact that both The Great Train Robbery and L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat have elements that appear to be moving toward the audience (not to mention that early film audiences, according to legend, are [dubiously] purported to have ducked at these elements). However, it is in L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat that this element is a train; in The Great Train Robbery said element is the pistol being pointed at the audience and fired during the iconic final shot of the film.
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