The Great Train Robbery (1903) Poster

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9/10
Formation of Cinematic Narrative
cjosephlyons8 August 2003
I enjoy this film even though it is very old and compared to today's cinema, very limited in its attempt at realism. But today's cinema would not be what it is without the original innovation of cinematic devices by Edwin S. Porter, one of films first masters. His progress in narrative construction and his work in special effects techniques astonished audiences like never before. His work was limited specifically because he used the static camera affecting the impact of each of his shots. His unique and influential editing style allowed the audience to take part in the action of the film, not sitting idly watching it. The movie is 12 minutes long and is considered the first narrative film in history. The most exciting scene is when the gangsters raid the train station and rob the train. The train is a really well done mat-shot of a train pulling into the station, frightening the audience in their seats. I personally am most excited by the final closing scene of the gangster shooting his gun, aiming it directly at the audience. This audience point of view shot makes me feel like the narrative of the train robbery enticed me to cheer for the Sheriff, and the angry gangster shoots at me because I was cheering for his enemy. This film and this sequence of the gangster shooting the audience was solidified in cinematic history when Martin Scorsese pays homage in 'Goodfellas', with Joe Pesci gun barrage and sinister look.
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10/10
A Truly Historic Masterpiece!
bsmith555224 February 2004
I just saw "The Great Train Robbery" in its entirety for the first time and I was truly amazed. Its hard to believe that the film is over 100 years old. It was shot from a stationary camera but it employs many of the cinematic techniques that have since become commonplace such as cross-cutting, the chase, the shootout etc. VCI Entertainment has released a marvelous 100 Year Anniversary Edition of the film in two versions...a completely silent version from the print owned by the U.S. Library of Congress and a second version with added music, color tints and sound effects.

Briefly, the story (filmed in the "wilds" of New Jersey), centers on four bandits who subdue a station agent (to keep him from sending out an alarm) and then climb aboard a train when it stops to take on water. Two of the bandits proceed to the mail car, kill the agent and make off with the loot. The others take care of the engineer and his fireman. One can imagine what the early audiences must have thought when one of the bandits suddenly throws the fireman off of the train. The cutting from the live action with the bandit and the fireman to the obvious dummy was quite innovative for the time.

The bandits then line up the passengers and rob them killing one of them as he tries to escape. They then ride the engine down the tracks to their waiting horses. Meanwhile the town folk are alerted at a local hoedown and form a posse to go after the robbers. What follows is a great little chase scene and the final showdown between the good guys and the bad guys, where you know who get what's coming to them.

The closing shot of actor George Barnes emptying his six shooter at the audience is perhaps one of the most famous shots in cinematic history. One can only imagine the effect that it must have had on the early audiences. I had always thought that this shot was at the beginning of the film. Early western pioneer "Broncho" Billy Anderson plays four roles in the film including one of the bandits.

Most of the scenes are filmed in medium to long shots. You don't really see the actors faces (except for Barnes as noted). But it is still a very good film for this or any time. It tells a complete and believable story in about 12 minutes and sets the stage for the many classic silent films that were to follow.

A truly historic cinematic experience.
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It's Easy To See How It Got Its Reputation
Snow Leopard11 April 2002
It's easy to see why this was such a sensation in 1903, and why today it is still considered to be an icon in movie history. You can enjoy this either as a historical landmark for its use of such a variety of then-new skills, or you can simply watch it for the story. To be sure, the plot is of a now-familiar type, but this is what so many other movies have imitated over the years.

The story-telling is very good, and it is almost not even necessary to add 'for its time', because much of it still holds up quite well. It tells an action-packed story with plenty of detail, and it uses a good variety of effective techniques to increase the excitement, suspense, and realism. From the motion effects in the scenes inside the train, to the occasional use of color tinting, to the use of outdoor scenes, almost everything works nicely. There are only a few occasions when can you tell that it is almost a century old. There are even things like some basic cross-cutting and a pretty good panning shot. There is plenty to see, and it's worth watching more than once to see what else you can notice.
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10/10
Historic action/crime thriller. A must-see for all film buffs.
Anonymous_Maxine6 September 2000
The Great Train Robbery was filmed only a couple of years into the 20th century, and when you watch it, its age is quite obvious. However, when you watch movies like this, you need to transport yourself back to the time period in which it was created and kind of watch the film through eyes that haven't been subjected to spectacularly visual films like The Matrix or Terminator 2.

Edwin Porter made a ground-breaking film with The Great Train Robbery. Sure, the scenes were very simple and the film is so blurry that you can't make out a single face (this is also a result of the total lack of close-up shots), but in 1903 people watched this film and were stunned. It was hugely successful because it was one of the first films in the world to be made that actually told a story. Previously, films were made mainly to show off the technology of the "moving picture," and the public loved them because they had never seen such a thing before. But when Porter came along with The Great Train Robbery, the path of motion pictures changed dramatically because people began to realize that these films could tell stories just as well as they could show water lapping on the beach or factory workers getting off of work or people jumping into a lake. These were the type of films that were made in the 1890s and early 1900s. The Great Train Robbery is an extremely short film, but it is an interesting story that is made even more fascinating because of the fact that everything that happens on the screen happened nearly 100 years ago. It's like looking at a piece of history.
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A timeless, priceless work
MikeF-66 March 2003
What can one say about an 11 minute film, which is reputed to be the first narrative motion picture to be shot in the United States? What does one compare it to when nothing had come before it? What is even more amazing is that parts of this movie are in color! The women's dresses at the dance are in color - each frame had been hand colored. The flashes from the barrels of the six shooters are red and an explosion sends up a riot of color. There is even a little girl in a red coat. Take that, Steven Spielberg!! Except for the last five seconds, all of the shots are in medium to long. The camera never moves. For each sequence, it is set in place and actors move in front of it.

It is a western, of course (shot in the wilds of New Jersey). A gang of bad guys knock out a train station clerk then board a departing train. They move to the car where there is a safe, blow the safe, stop the train and rob the passengers. Back in town, the clerk revives and tries to get help but passes out again. A little girl comes in wakes him up. The townspeople are having a dance when the clerk runs in to form a posse. The posse rides out and surrounds the gang, who is counting the loot in the woods. There is a gunfight and the robbers are killed. That is the whole story, but there is one short scene left - one of the most remarkable in film history. The all color episode lasts about 5 seconds. In medium close-up, a cowboy raises his pistol, points it directly at the camera, and fires three times. It is difficult for us to understand why this is here or what purpose it served. But when people who had never seen a movie before and didn't have any understanding of the technology first saw this man shooting at them, they screamed, fell to the floor, and ran for the door. It is also said that some in the audience pulled firearms and shot back. It is an early testament to the power that motion pictures had, even in its earliest incarnation. Thankfully, TCM ran TGTR without any modern musical accompaniment, as thousands must have seen it in the nineteen-aughts. I watched in total amazement. I was transported. Later, I reflected on how far movies had come and how little they had changed in the last 100 years. This movie is a priceless historical artifact that shows us just how much the past is still with us.
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Porter's innovative early film
didi-58 May 2004
This film, often lauded as one of the first movies to include a linear narrative within its running time, came out of the Edison company over a hundred years ago, following their experiments in the previous decades with shorter topical pieces such as cockfighting, dancers, and other limited scenarios.

'The Great Train Robbery' is a simple enough story - a train is robbed, there is a shoot-out. The interesting scenes for me were the ones where the passengers are held at gunpoint while their valuables are collected, the shoot-out with its hand-coloured bursts of gunfire, and the famous final shot where a gun is fired directly at the audience. Not too frightening now, but back in those days this was quite an innovation.

Historically important and with a basic plot still in use today, this film holds significant interest for a wide audience (and will take less than a quarter of an hour of your time to view).
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Pioneer work possible birthplace of Western
pooch-830 July 1999
Arguably the first motion picture to employ the milieu of what would quickly become known as the Western genre, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery was a smashing success with audiences (dozens of film history texts report with glee how viewers shrieked with fear and delight when a tightly-framed gunslinger pointed and fired directly at the camera) and made remarkable strides toward the establishment of longer, more narratively developed films. Porter's cutting was also among the most sophisticated to date, as multiple locations and events were suffused with a previously unseen urgency. Based on actual events, The Great Train Robbery ignited the imaginations of the scores who saw it -- making the movie one of the earliest examples of sensationalized, fictionalized screen adaptations taken from historical precedent.
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8/10
Film Editing Is Born
evanston_dad3 January 2006
It's hard to assign "The Great Train Robbery" a rating, as it shouldn't really be watched as a film the way we watch films now. But from a historical perspective, it's fascinating, and is an excellent example of the use of film editing, an art form then in its infancy and now an award category recognized every year at the Oscars.

Before this movie, it wasn't customary to tell multiple story lines simultaneously, but here, various activities going on in different locations are intercut to create suspense. D.W. Griffith would use this technique much more ambitiously (and combine it with many other developing film techniques) in "The Birth of a Nation" over ten years later, but credit must be given to "Train Robbery" for blazing a trail.

Also, this is the movie famous for the shot of an outlaw shooting a gun directly at the camera. I can't imagine what effect this had on audiences at the time, who were probably diving behind their chairs for cover.

Grade: A
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8/10
A start that filmmakers should be proud of...
clockert1 February 2004
As an early film, this film is quite spectacular. Ok, so it's only twelve minutes, but that is twelve minutes of pure action and entertainment. When this film was made, things like special effects were hardly thought of, but notice how well the transgression from person to doll on the "throw the dead guy off the train" goes, and how nicely they have "moved the train" without moving the camera when they leave the locomotive behind.

This movie is probably the best preview to how modern westerns became, at least if you take the best twelve minutes of many westerns, the twelve where people get shot, beat up and alerted. The movie follows it's storyline perfectly, and is easy to grasp the continuance throughout the film, in all, quite a masterpiece that comes highly recommended.

Christian Lockert
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10/10
Action, Adventure in this Early Drama
Lugosi3114 June 1999
This film was made in 1903 and was the longest one to date: twelve minutes. It has a clearly identifiable plot and this is that a band of four outlaws wreak havoc on two trains and the people on them. They are rather skilled criminals but, in the end, ... This movie is a must-see if you are interested in the dawn of the cinematographic age.
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Narrative Development: Structure
Cineanalyst2 August 2004
Warning: Spoilers
"The Great Train Robbery" was the most successful film to date, and its distribution preceded and eventually coincided with the spread of Nickelodeons across America. It didn't instantly create the Western genre; instead, it was part of and led to a spew of crime pictures--a genre begun in England. (G.M. "Billy Bronco" Anderson, who was somewhat of an assistant director on the film, would largely invent the movie Western a few years later after leaving the Edison Company, however.) Although the plot isn't very exciting today, the film remains a landmark in film history--mostly for its narrative structure. It's also notable how matter-of-fact, "realistic" and violent the film is for its time--being detailed and rather objective in its following of the details of the crime (what Neil Harris calls "an operational aesthetic"). The story film was already established by 1903 but was still in its infancy. Filmmakers were still experimenting with how to tell a narrative, and Porter was one of early film's greatest innovators, as well as an astute student of film.

Throughout his film-making career, Porter was strongly influenced by contemporary British and French films, which he would have ready access to since the Edison Company regularly duped them. His "Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show" is a rip-off of Robert Paul's "The Countryman and the Cinematograph". "The Gay Shoe Clerk" is a revision of George Smith's "As Seen Through a Telescope". Porter also introduced intertitles to American cinema in "Uncle Tom's Cabin", having seen them in some of Smith's films. "Life of an American Fireman" reflects James Williamson's "Fire!" The temporal replay in that film was influenced by Georges Méliès's temporal replay of the moon landing in "Le Voyage dans la lune". "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend" also owes plenty to Méliès.

"The Great Train Robbery" followed a recently created genre of crime and chase films begun in England. "The Daring Daylight Robbery" was especially of influence, as was, it is said by historians, a 1903 film called "The Robbery of the Mail Coach". "The Great Train Robbery" is also based on a play of the same title by Scott Marble. News of real train robberies also served as inspiration according to the Edison catalogue. Anyhow, with the exception of wholesale rip-offs, it's not discourageable that Porter learned from other films and adopted techniques and style from them for his own. He is worthy of history's praise for being such an avid student of film and one of the more active filmmakers of his time to develop film grammar.

Some film historians and critics say that Porter's work was uneven, that "The Grain Train Robbery" and perhaps one or two other films were a happenstance success, or fluke. Someone was bound to figure out the techniques of narrative as story films became more complex--confronting such problems as spatially separate actions and the continuity of action. I've seen a good share of Porter's work, however, and it's apparent that he was usually experimenting. He wasn't consistent like Méliès, which is good because his work becomes stale. Porter's previous experiments in editing resulted in this, his most accomplished story film and greatest success.

There are a few special effects in "The Great Train Robbery", as others have mentioned. It's nothing new: double-exposure matte work for the shot of the train outside the window and for the outside of the moving train's door, hand coloring, in addition to stopping the camera and splicing to replace an actor with what is obviously a mannequin. Most amazing about this picture (for its time) are its structure and the editing and camera techniques employed for its continuity. Panning and tilting wasn't new, but this movement of the camera in one scene to follow the action is exceptional for 1903. Likewise, Porter and others had already used the close-up. Porter employed an insert of a fire alarm in "Life of an American Fireman" and a privileged camera position for "The Gay Shoe Clerk". The shock value of the close-up in this film even serves form as its entirety is supposed to thrill.

Furthermore, the view from on top of the train is quite good. The transitioning between interior and exterior shots is fluent, and generally so is the continuation of action from scene to scene, with action exiting and entering scenes from appropriate directions. This is elementary film-making now, but in 1903, they were inventing it.

What I think is the most interesting part of "The Great Train Robbery", though, is its editing between the plot of the telegrapher and that of the robbers after their initial confrontation. After following the robbers for a while, the film cuts back to the "meanwhile" plot of the telegrapher. Initially, the barn dance scene doesn't appear to serve any narrative function--until the telegrapher enters to gather a posse. It's an interesting ordering of and transitioning between parallel actions. The plot isn't in temporal order, and it's a nice testament to Porter's innovation that a few modern viewers have been perplexed by how the posse catches up with the robbers so quickly.

It would take D.W. Griffith and others to build upon past work and their own in moving towards more entertaining and cinematic films, but the developments in narrative experimented with by pioneers like Porter paved the way.

(Note: This is one of four films that I've commented on because they're landmarks of early narrative development in film history. The others are "As Seen Through a Telescope", "Le Voyage dans la lune" and "Rescued by Rover".)
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this film sets the stage for every westren which followed
desertisland199920 July 2002
The wild west. Tales of daring do on horse back. Such images conjured up by the term "wild west" conjure images of cowboys making peace with indians, train robberys, buffalo hunts and the indian wars. This term also conjures up law and order which, in that era a live by the sword and die by it venture. THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY captures the brutal lawless stories of the old west and translates it to film. Literally the film that started it all, this film proved story telling had moved from cave wall drawings, to pen and paper, and now celluloid. A great film for the era in which it was made and today as a historical heirloom. The GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY helped permanently capture the imagination of audiences everywhere.
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surprising
Kirpianuscus7 April 2018
...at each new view. because it is more modern than you imagine. and new details are sources of seduction. a story almost perfect. because it has the gioft to present the basic traits of an ideal western, you feel the action and the only close up is legendary. short, a masterpiece.
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6/10
A landmark film that while it has problems I can see how noteworthy it was to the scene of film
WakenPayne7 December 2015
I would say watch this movie with the intention in mind that film had only really existed for about 15 years maximum considering I've seen footage from the 1880's. I will say that back then there was no story to speak of with any movie at the time and I don't think many people saw the potential for what it could do. So this gave birth to film editing. I will say the plot is really nothing special but being that this is the first go at editing in history I thought I should talk about the technical elements. I was impressed by how much this felt like it was The Wild West and I also liked how many people they took in to get this made when at this point, film was just a cheap amusement to the public eye. But there are some weaknesses with it, To say the number of robbers in the robbery is inconsistent is an understatement. First there's 2, then 4, then 3 it's a mess. That and I don't know what the significance of the last shot is. It's one of a guy in a stationary location that has nothing to do with what has been seen looking directly at you and firing a gun. I guess because back then editing was a new concept that they could get some of the cheap amusement side of it that it was at the time at the ending but I don't think it ages well. All in all, I would say watch it if you're a fan of westerns or want to know about film history.
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10/10
The First American Motion Picture Was an "Eastern" Western
romanorum13 August 2009
What do these famous persons have in common: Buffalo Bill, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Charlie Siringo, Frank James, Annie Oakley, Cole Younger, and "Yellowstone" Kelly? They were still alive in 1903, and they had a lot of living to do. Perhaps they saw this wonderful movie, which was inspired by a Wyoming train robbery by Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch in 1900. The Great Train Robbery, produced by the Edison Studios, was filmed in the wilds of New Jersey. The title sums up the feature, but the train bandits get their comeuppance within twelve minutes. It is only fitting that the historic first motion picture in America was a western. A bandit shoots at the audience at the beginning or end of the feature, depending upon the prints (which vary). "Broncho Billy" Anderson, who regularly acted for almost two decades, had several roles. He may have been the first American movie "star," in the loose sense of the term. Great fun!
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9/10
Groundbreaking piece of history
MartinHafer9 August 2006
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY is one of the first "modern" movies because there is a definite plot as well as scenery, a coherent story and suspense. While this is also true of the even better French film, Le Voyage dans la lune that was shot a year earlier (1902), other than that, "movies" were almost exclusively plot less (they just turned on the camera and recorded mundane activities), or had no beginning, middle AND end--they were just snippets of action. At a whopping ten plus minutes, this movie was significantly longer than the average film as well (which often lasted less than one minute).

On the plus side, it was and is still pretty watchable, with decent indoor sets and outdoor scenes, lots of action and some inventive camera-work. On the negative side, some of the action scenes were really, really lame--even for 1903! For instance, when the two men are fighting on the train, it's very obvious that the man is switched with a dummy and the dummy is tossed over the side--it really could have been done a lot better. BUT, because it is such an early attempt, I can forgive this!
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1/10
this film doesn't age really well
jmoralez-7110016 November 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I was minding my business in my digital media class at Harvard university, when all of the sudden my teacher plays this movie and my disappointment is immeasurable and my day is ruined. The movie seems really dated and the props used were not of the top quality I expect in my blockbuster film. I did not like the black and white approach, and the soundtrack is very repetitive. Overall, this is my least favorite film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I hope Stan Lee ups his game next time//streaks
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A re-make was made!
tina_hudsonn9 August 2006
Did you guys know their is a 2004 re-make of this great classic? It was made by a bunch of indie filmmakers in Oklahoma. The only reason I know about it is because I'm a BIG Adam Ropp fan and he starred as one of the crooks. It's on here on IMDb, either type in Adam Ropps' name and go to the title on his actor list or type in "Great Train Robbery" and click the 2004 version. It was a very interesting version because they shot it in black and white; used captions; but had a voice over. Has anyone else seen it?? Adam Ropp and Ford Austin starred as the crooks and what's also very interesting is that an actor by the name of Bret Mix acted in it. Bret Mix is the great, great grand nephew of silent screen star "Tom Mix" who was the biggest star in the world when this movie was made. Tom Mix was bigger than John Wayne and Chaplin both, but he died in a car crash too early for his name carry on.
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9/10
Famous image, famous film
Polaris_DiB7 September 2005
Here is the famous film so beloved of film freaks and homaged by directors.

The earliest work in narrative is also one of the most dazzling early works. It's violent, high-paced, and colorful. Yet what makes it really worth the the bother to find is its creativity, at least at the time.

So far, all the narrative techniques had not yet been developed, such as close-ups and the like. This film had to tell a whole story using what little experience it had, so it does it well. Firstly, double-exposures helped replace the standard wide-shot and also were used as special effects. Secondly, most of the action is contained to relatively small environments, so the filmmakers used a lot of depth in the frame to widen it and make it seem more real. Thirdly, color was used.

It's also the film that has the famous image of the cowboy shooting at the screen, even if that image is largely useless by today's need for narrative arch.

It was meant to dazzle, not to make sense. The fact that it can still dazzle today is what helps people understand its quality.

--PolarisDiB
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8/10
One of the Oldest Films I've Ever Seen
ctrout28 January 2005
As the title of this summary states, this is one of the oldest films I've ever seen. But that doesn't take away from how well it was made. It's probably the best film of the '00s and you'll probably agree with me about that.

The plot is very simple, yet it's very interesting too. A clerk at a train station is held up by four bandits who are trying to rob a train. They tie up the clerk and threaten the train operator. Then they take all the money from the train. Meanwhile, a little girl finds the clerk and warns the sheriff. He forms a posse and an incredible climax occurs.

The last shot of the film is probably the most memorable and it's been imitated many times. I won't give it away because the film is so good, but I'll say that when you see it, you'll probably find yourself thinking that you can remember seeing that before.

The director, Edwin S. Porter, was more influential to me than D.W. Griffith. So that's saying a lot about him because Griffith is sometimes considered to be the father of full length feature films. But I still say Porter is up there with the best. Enjoy The Great Train Robbery.
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7/10
Not to be confused with Crichton novel or movie (web)
leplatypus21 July 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The titles are the same as the content for sure but Crichton was set in Victorian Britain in 1864 while here it's America! It's amazing how baby cinema had already create his own visual langage and in less than 10 years: the movie is dynamic, the angle are inspired (it's nearly VR on the top of the train) and maybe the difference with BTF3 or Indy 3 is only the issue of sound and score! For sure i waited the moment when those bandits would be caught because i couldn't imagine a Doberman movie at this time! Moral is safe! The final shot of this bandit shooting the audience at close range is fantastic because it embodies truly what is cinema: a virtual reality filling you with emotions ranging from all the spectre, good to bad! Sure, the action is crude, limited but it's like videogames: the first games invented everything and today games are just the old games done with better technology! At last, with this movie, i finally reach my destination also because i have now watched 1 movie by year between cinema birth and mine! I really expected that this earlier movies would be boring but they surprise me to be as good (or even better) than today ones and with as talented people: Méliès, DW Griffith, Mary Brian, Louise Brooks and German productions...
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7/10
The Birth of the Western
alfCycle27 April 2017
Warning: Spoilers
This film is very simple and straight forward. By today's standards there is nothing remotely new. However, when looked at in the context of the time it was released, it is easy to see how influential this movie would become. So many future films, particularly westerns, can be traced back to the basic formula of this movie. The final scene of Goodfellas even has an homage to this film. Apparently, audiences at the time jumped out of their seats with fear at the last scene, which I can understand for a person who had never seen a movie in their life.

Recommended to anyone interested in the history of film making.

7/10

...but that's just like, my opinion, man

# Of Times Watched: Once
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7/10
Early Western silent film with interesting visual effects
classicsoncall9 October 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Despite it's humble and simple origins, this eleven minute silent film is wonderful for it's attempt at telling a story using the Western genre as it's format. The version I saw on Turner Classics contained a number of surprising elements that I wasn't expecting from a picture made in 1903. The first of these was the complete silence of the picture, no musical accompaniment of any kind, making this an unusual, one of a kind experience. Then, when the outlaws in the story blew up the strongbox in the train's mail car, a bright flash of orange and yellow lit up the screen making me wonder how the effect was achieved. Other viewers here comment on the process so I'll defer to those who know better.

The use of color is done sparingly but to wonderful effect, and when I first saw the young girl in red attempting to wake up the injured mail clerk, the first thing I thought of was Little Red Riding Hood. The process is used again on the dresses of the dancing women and during the posse chase when gunshots are highlighted in a colorful powder flash similar to the earlier strongbox explosion. The very last frames of the cowboy shooting directly at the viewer was done in color as well, a neat touch to bring the brief story to a conclusion.

The story itself was a forerunner to all those thousands of B Westerns that were soon to follow in the Thirties and Forties with endless horse chases and gunfights to excite movie goers of all ages. As expected, the bandits get their due in the film as they are all done in by the dance hall posse that quickly assembled to chase down the bad guys. The other main highlight of the picture had to be the crowd of train passengers who were forced off the train at gunpoint during the robbery.

Oh, I shouldn't forget this item of note, it was kind of interesting. When the robbers made their way on the train, one of the engine crew came out to fight off an outlaw, and in the tussle that followed, he was beaten up by the bad guy. The transition that then occurred was kind of neat, because you couldn't tell exactly when the live actor turned into the dummy that was thrown off the train!
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9/10
The Beginning of Cinema
framptonhollis29 January 2016
After films like "A Trip to the Moon", it was discovered that the new artistic medium of film could tell stories. By the time "The Great Train Robbery" was released, cinema was changed forever.

The final shot has always been considered one of the most memorable shots in cinema history. In it, a cowboy is looking straight into the camera, holding a gun. Then, all of a sudden, he shoots right at the screen and the film ends. It's fun to note that this shot was payed tribute to in the acclaimed crime film "Goodfellas".

"The Great Train Robbery" is, without a doubt, one of the earliest crime films and one of the first films with a regular narrative.

For 1903, it is really thrilling and well made. It's full of action, adventure, and inventive/influential filmmaking, there were very few films like it at the time!
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8/10
Shooting at the audience
des-4716 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Though by no means the first with a Western setting, this film was a breakthrough for the genre and, with a plot involving black-clad trigger happy bandits holding up a train then receiving rough justice at the hands of a posse following a horseback chase, helped established several elements of its iconography. Like so much else that was later to seem newly minted for the cinema, these images had precedents in other media, including popular fiction, graphic art and touring stage spectacles known as Wild West Shows which presented a romanticised, gun-totin' version of the American West in the late Victorian period. But location filming provided the opportunity to present these elements in a new setting of realistic visual grandeur and scale – even if, as here, New Jersey stood in for the West.

Like various other longer narrative films in these early days, The Great Train Robbery tells its story largely by stringing together a succession of tableaux, with studio and location scenes staged alike in long shot. At around 12 minutes, with 14 shots, it builds in length, ambition and achievement on Edison director Edwin S Porter's Life of an American Fireman, released a few months earlier, though in some respects is less visually imaginative. A lengthy scene where the villains force passengers off the train and rob them shows the limitations of the technique: the shot is perfectly set up for the dramatic death of a would-be escapee who runs towards the camera before being killed, and later after the bandits depart and the crowd swarms round the corpse, but otherwise it's difficult to see what's going on.

Elsewhere Porter makes good use of the opportunities for movement and energy. He shoots from the back of a moving locomotive across the top of the cab to the track ahead as the villains stalk towards the crew. And a contemporary director would likely choose a similar camera position for the shot where the mounted bandits are chased through the woods by the posse, exchanging gunfire as they go. Notably, there are two early examples of camera movement, put to very good use when the villains leave the hijacked loco. The camera pans and tilts with the characters, setting up the expectation that there's something of interest just off frame, which is then revealed as a group of waiting horses on which they make their final escape.

But the film is best known for a shot completely tangential to the narrative, in which actor Justus D Barnes, as the leader of the gang, expressionlessly points his revolver at the camera and fires six shots at point blank range. The shot is usually placed at the end of the film, after the character has been killed on screen, but Porter suggested it could also be re-edited as the opening shot if distributors preferred. It's a striking image of violence directed at the audience, but there are now no reports of screaming and ducking as with the Lumières' train.

Far from being 'realistic', the shot, and the film as a whole, exemplify the growing tendency of cinema to exploit the vicarious thrill of danger and violence in a contained, safe space. The image is cinema's second enduring icon after Méliès' moon, and has been much parodied and homaged, most notably in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, with Joe Pesci's psychotic gangster standing in for Barnes' outlaw. But in the later film it's actually the penultimate shot. It's followed by a view of the narrator, Ray Liotta's police informer, smiling smugly at the camera before retreating into the comfortable suburban home he occupies under his new identity, safe in the knowledge that the bad guys and their guns are now illusions, locked in their cel(l) of film.
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