Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mild Mild West

Films The Great Train Robbery
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Movies, obviously, have changed a great deal in the 100+ years from those first few with rudimentary plots to the films of today. The Great Train Robbery has in common with modern films virtually nothing except that there is a moving picture on the screen and there is at least a semblance of story. Things we expect in movies, like sound, are obviously absent. But even things expected in silent films—title cards, director credits, a cast list—are missing as well. Instead, this is just 12 minutes of guys robbing a train, making a getaway, and a posse mounting up to track the bandits down.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot of this film, which is the first real Western ever made despite its being filmed in that rugged western state of New Jersey. What’s important to remember is that in many ways, the Wild West was still pretty wild when this film was made, and it isn’t too difficult to imagine an actual train hold-up much like this one happening for real somewhere west of the Mississippi while filming took place.

What is noteworthy here are a few innovations that took place. In 1903, when The Great Train Robbery first released, almost anything done in front of a camera involved some innovation. Things that we take for granted as experienced movie watchers (and virtually everyone in this day and age has enough savvy to follow a filmed story) did not exist as conventions at the turn of the previous century.

This is not the first film with a plot; that honor belongs to La Voyage Dans la Lune of the previous year. The Great Train Robbery takes that idea of filming a story and adds a few technical and cinematic achievements to it, though. First, the film was made in real locations instead of on a stage, and with real props instead of stage gimmickry. It’s a real train, and the actors use what certainly look like real guns instead of cardboard mockeries. They ride real horses.

This is a bigger innovation than it sounds like it should be. La Voyage Dans la Lune was more or less a staged production that happened to be filmed. Certainly there are camera tricks there that would be nearly impossible on a stage, but that is essentially what the film is. Actors stand in front of stage backdrops and use two-dimensional props. Here, the film shows a real world, mainly because it was filmed in the real world.

It also shows a real-life story, or at least a story that could be real life. Train robberies happened, and the actors are dressed as real people of the period. Again, that seems like a minor innovation, something so natural to us that it’s almost not worth mentioning—but this is the first realistic fictional story ever filmed, and that’s saying a lot.

Porter also does a few interesting things with the way the narration plays out. Rather than giving us a straight linear story, he cuts between different locations, showing us what happens to characters later in the film. We see at the start a telegraph operator being assaulted, for instance, and then when the robbers leave him tied up on the floor, the telegraph man is out of the picture. Except that he isn’t—he comes back after the robbery, when he is discovered tied up on the floor of his office. Before this, that kind of skipping back to earlier characters or previous locations didn’t happen. A story was shown as it happened, concentrating on the main action. Porter freed those bonds by showing that as a medium, film could allow us to compress or expand time and location, and that it was possible and effective to show a story from multiple different aspects.

This isn’t a great film. It’s rudimentary, as should be expected for something made when creating a film with a story still had an umbilical cord attached. This isn’t a film to watch for the fantastic plot, camera work, or direction. The reason this film is important is because of what it is and because of everything it represents. This is the birth of American filmmaking, and it’s equally the birth of removing the cameras from a stage and putting them out in the world. It is the first film to try to capture an exciting and lurid event as it was happening.

You know what? It’s about 12 minutes long. You should find the time to hunt this down online and watch it if you are even remotely favorable to watching film not just for plot and character, but for seriously studying the medium and seeing where so much of it started. Really, it’s 12 minutes long. You owe history at least that much of your attention.

Why to watch The Great Train Robbery: Cinematic history.
Why not to watch: No interest in where films came from.


  1. Great writeup, and I agree completely. Sets, location shots, special effects, stuntwork... impressive for 1903.

  2. This is one that every serious film person should see. It's short and innovative for what it is.

  3. A simple -to watch- and basic film that, yes, everyone should see. Like you say it is only 12 minutes and I'm so glad I've watched it.!
    The facial expressions on some of the actors make it worth the ticket alone!
    It is interesting to see how cinema began and this movie helps on the journey to discovering that history so, a must see film. Unless you don't give a hoot and would rather watch Shrek. . .

    1. Exactly. Even people who hate Westerns or early film or silents in general should invest the 12 minutes. This is film history we're talking about.