Today’s classic is another short film from the early days of cinema. The Great Train Robbery is an energetic, exciting Western that helped to establish moviegoing as a popular pastime. It might seem full of cliches now, but this delightful short film is where many of those cliches began.
Six villains force a train to make an unscheduled stop, they rob the safe and the passengers and make off with the money. Meanwhile the signal man raises the alarm and the gang are pursued by the Sheriff’s posse.
Made in 1903, The Great Train Robbery was written and directed by Edwin S. Porter. It was the first American film to have a strong narrative and Porter used many groundbreaking techniques including cross-cutting to show multiple events occurring at the same time – the gang’s celebrations at the saloon cut to the signalman being rescued, cutting back to the gang going on the run.
Porter also shot the film on location giving it atmosphere and scale. Although Porter used some minor camera panning, he injected considerable movement to the film by using a real moving train in the background and even mounting the camera on the moving train itself. This makes for a dynamic and impressive film that feels ahead of its time.
The characters and the action are exciting and entertaining. These villains are violent men, and the audience witnesses multiple shootings and beatings. The film closes on a fabulous shoot out in the woods. Some of the explosions have even been hand tinted to create a sense of chaos and high action. The somewhat gimmicky closer caused a sensation at the time.
It’s fascinating to imagine the excitement this film would have created amongst an audience used only to reading Western dime novels. To actually see them on the screen for the first time must have been mind-blowing.
You can watch the full ten minute film below. It’s one of my favourite silent films, mainly due to the way it captures so much energy. I hope you enjoy it – let me know what you think.