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The Great Train Robbery (1903)
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,The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery

"Replete With Thrilling and Exciting Incidents in Fourteen Scenes, The Great Train Robbery...has been posed and acted in faithful imitation 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." So said a 1903 advertisement admonishing the nascent movie-going population to fork over their hard-earned coins to see Edison Films' production of The Great Train Robbery, a one-reel milestone of cinema history, photographed and produced by Edwin S. Porter.

Porter began his motion picture career as an electrician and touring projectionist, working several years in the West Indies and South America, Canada, and the United States. He was nearly thirty when he began working for the Edison Company in 1899 in the mechanical department. He soon was placed in complete control of Edison Films' New York studios, which meant he was in charge of the entire filmmaking operation: story development, camera, directing, editing and processing the prints for exhibition. Porter began by making small trick films and comedies. He certainly did not intend to become an innovator in motion picture storytelling nor did he have designs on creating a milestone film. But with The Great Train Robbery, he did just that by telling the simple story of the step-by-step hold-up of a locomotive's money car by a gang of masked bandits, and the subsequent formation of a posse that gives chase and eventually captures the killer gang. All of this took place within the span of about twelve minutes. While the story seems simple what makes The Great Train Robbery so important is the context in which the film was made, both historically and structurally.

Before Porter's film, audiences were used to primitive cinematic depictions of actual life, such as people riding subway trains or walking down a sidewalk. Or maybe the nickelodeons showed the flip side of actualities-- surreal dreams of fantasy life, as depicted by magicians such as Georges Méliès, who used editing tricks to make people disappear, fly, morph into other creatures, or anything else that was ordinarily impossible to achieve in real life. Whether films captured waking life or fanciful dreams, they were always structurally rudimentary, often taking place within one shot, one setting, a handful of characters, and a bare-bones plot. What Porter's film did was tell a story with many roughly sketched characters, several settings, and an editing scheme that dared to suggest that perhaps multiple scenes or story turns were occurring simultaneously. It may be difficult to understand this last point, since audiences today are expertly conditioned to be able to follow very quickly a story that's told with multiple shots, edits, subplots, and frequently contradicting points of view. Viewers at the turn of the century were not equipped with these skills, so when the film would change from one scene to another, with an entirely different setting, it was considered to be a radical development in filmmaking.

It was Porter's The Great Train Robbery that became the first influential narrative film in which the editing was imaginative and contributed to the narrative. Another element of how the film was revolutionary is in the way Porter uses matte shots, a technique that Méliès often used by blocking out different parts of two shots in order to create a composite scene that could be directly photographed by a single camera. Instead of creating illusions as Méliès did, Porter used matte shots in service of the narrative, by showing the train through the window of the railroad station (to suggest a larger world outside the tiny studio), and the moving landscape through the open door of the express car.

The Great Train Robbery also ignited America's long love affair with the Western genre. Inspired by Scott Marble's play The Great Train Robbery (1896), Porter was the first to put together motion picture magic with myths and stories of America's pursuit of Manifest Destiny on the pioneering plains and horizons, all pointing West. The basic genre tenets of the Western story were a familiar staple in American storytelling. He put into visual form what was previously the realm of imagination. Ironically, all of Porter's depiction of the American West was shot in the "wilds" of New Jersey, just a stone's throw from the Edison studios. In fact, the Westerns didn't really go West until about 1910, but regardless of location, the Western became the very first American movie genre, developed into an art form by later filmmakers, among them Max Aronson (later known as Bronco Billy Anderson), who appears in The Great Train Robbery in several roles, including the passenger who is shot in the back as he tries to flee the bandits.

Incidentally, the last shot of the film is quite literally the last "shot" of the film; actor Justus D. Barnes, playing the head bandit Barnes, points his gun directly at the camera/audience and unloads. He continues pulling the trigger even after the chamber has been emptied. Labeled "realism" in the accompanying notes for The Great Train Robbery, this extra shot, having nothing whatsoever to do with the story, could be placed at either the beginning or the end of the film. As one historian noted, "the shot added realism to the film by intensifying the spectators' identification with the victimized travelers."

Director: Edwin S. Porter (uncredited)
Screenplay: Edwin S. Porter (uncredited); Scott Marble (story, uncredited)
Cinematography: Edwin S. Porter and Blair Smith (both uncredited)
Cast: John Manus Dougherty Sr. (4th Bandit), A.C. Abadie (Sheriff, uncredited), Gilbert M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson (Bandit/Shot Passenger/Tenderfoot Dancer, uncredited), Justus D. Barnes (Bandit, uncredited), Walter Cameron (Sheriff, uncredited), Donald Gallaher (Little Boy, uncredited), Frank Hanaway (Bandit, uncredited)

by Scott McGee