The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Directed by Edwin S. Porter

Evaluating such historically significant and celebrated films such as The Great Train Robbery is a difficult task. As someone viewing the film over a century after the film was first seen by audiences who, at that time, were not yet accustomed to the art form of moving pictures, it is difficult to place my own perspective into that of a 1903 audience member, hard as I may try. My experiences and preconceived notions of what I’m about to see are just different. However, thinking critically about the historical significance of a film is a rewarding experience, even as I try to sit back and enjoy the film for what it is and the entertainment value it also brings to the table.

I guess at this point I could also welcome everybody reading along to my extremely ambitious Western marathon, which will likely seem never-ending the further along I make it. Starting with The Great Train Robbery seems fitting. Even though it is the only short film I included in my list, it is most likely the first Western film ever released. I am sure this could be disputed, and I could include a list of plenty of other early Western films as part of my marathon, but as such a famous historical film, I wanted to include The Great Train Robbery on my list and use it as a springboard into the many other famous Westerns on my list, even if there is a two decade gap between this and my second film, The Covered Wagon.

As part of this marathon, I will try and focus on a couple of different aspects of the genre, while also evaluating the films as I would any other. First of all, I want to focus on how Native Americans and women are treated in these films, more specifically how they are portrayed. I am also interested somewhat in setting and era, that is what part of the American West is the film taking place, and what, if any, major historical event(s) does the story take place in (for instance, the Civil War, the Gold Rush, the Oregon Trail, etc.). Lastly, I would like to examine where these films fit into Frank Gruber’s seven basic Western plots, which are as follows:

  1. The Union Pacific story (Railroad/Stagecoach/Wagon Train)
  2. The Ranch story
  3. The Empire story
  4. The Revenge story
  5. The Cavalry and Indians story
  6. The Outlaw story
  7. The Marshal story

For The Great Train Robbery, it is easy to classify this as an Outlaw story. The film opens with a group of bandits overtaking a train station and subsequently the train itself, stealing valuables from the storage cars and as well as the train’s passengers, killing a few along the way. On the run, the bandits are followed closely by a vigilante posse seeking justice for the crime committed by the bandits. While the film takes place in a nondescript location, it can be easily classified as a Western due to its themes of outlaws and trains, and the general dress and actions of the bandits, wearing cowboy hats, brandishing pistols, and celebrating in a saloon after their triumph.

Apart from the bad acting from actors dying on screen, The Great Train Robbery is a really fun, fairly swift adventure. Again, as I go back to framing the film in its time, released in 1903, I can see the film as a tremendously exciting film, even if by today’s standards audiences would likely be bored. The film’s greatest strength, and one of its greatest historical contributions, is its editing, which pieces the story together extremely well, creating one of the first fully narrative films ever, even if it feels like the films lingers too long on certain shots. Perhaps the most famous image of the film, the bandit firing his gun directly at the camera, is actually the most out of place element of the film. While an incredible idea, well executed as a shot, its placement within the story not only adds nothing to the film, but is also startling for more than just the threat of a bullet flying through the screen at the viewer’s face.

That being said, The Great Train Robbery is a film that, were I an audience member in 1903, with the necessary means, I could easily see myself paying a nickel to go see it multiple times. It is an important film in the history of the medium, for many reasons. It is also an important film in the history of the genre, setting up the Western film for years to come as audiences loved the film. It was a great success and a great start to this wonderful journey through the Old West. While it was a fairly standard story, it gets an extra half-star bump for its historical significance. Saddle up because this wagon train is leaving and headed for many adventures out West!

***1/2 – Great

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