The Great Train Robbery (I) (1903)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
'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).
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.
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.
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".)
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!
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.
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.
Recommended to anyone interested in the history of film making.
...but that's just like, my opinion, man
# Of Times Watched: Once
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!
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!
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.