#114) The Great Train Robbery (1903)

great-train-robbery-1903-granger

#114) The Great Train Robbery (1903)

OR “The One-Reeler Six-Shooter”

Directed & Written by Edwin S. Porter. Based on the stage play by Scott Marble.

Class of 1990

The Plot: There’s a train robbery, and it’s pretty great.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “the first narrative feature” and praises the iconic final shot (or first shot depending on your distributor).

But Does It Really?: Historically yes. It was one of the most successful films of its day and included such technological breakthroughs as cross-cutting, on-location shooting, and get this, camera movements. It’s all very tame by modern standards, but it’s a breezy 12 minutes and worth a watch if you want to see an important piece of film history.

Everybody Gets One: One of the robbers is Gilbert Anderson, who shortly afterwards would become “Bronco Billy”, the first Western star of the silent era. Over 50 years after this film’s release Anderson received a lifetime achievement Academy Award. The bandit who shoots at the camera is Justus D. Barnes. He became a regular player with the Tanhouser Film Company until budget cuts led to his dismissal. But don’t worry, he was compensated with film immortality.

Wow, That’s Dated: Train robberies. That’s a big one.

Other notes

  • This was based on a stage play? How? I guess this film wins for best “opening up” of a play-to-film adaptation.
  • I just watched the bandits tie up the train station clerk in real time. I know it’s early cinema, but someone please invent editing!
  • How many people are on that train? I keep waiting for clowns to start piling out.
  • Is the clerk saved by a tiny Angel of Death?
  • Nope, just ignore the tied-up clerk removing one hand from the rope to help himself up. Just look away.
  • There’s a scene in a dance hall for some reason. Don’t know why it’s here, but it’s fun to watch that very western thing of shooting the floor to make people dance.
  • That last shot is pretty great, and made even more exciting when you learn that blanks had not been perfected and they had to use real bullets. I just hope the cameraman got out of the way in time.

Legacy

  • Several films have been made with the title “The Great Train Robbery”. Not necessarily remakes, but the title is an obvious tribute.
  • An entire episode of the ‘60s “Batman” involved the Riddler trying to steal a rare print of “The Great Train Robbery”. Holy film preservation!
  • The famous final shot has been referenced occasionally, most notably at the end of “Goodfellas”.

Further Viewing: Here’s something you don’t see every day. Two years after “The Great Train Robbery”, Edwin Porter did a remake called “The Little Train Robbery”. It was essentially the same film, but with children in all the roles. Make of that what you will.

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