It’s time to cross another movie off our Bucket Cine-List! This time around it is the 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery.
The Great Train Robbery is, simply put, a film about a bunch of bandits who steal a train. They knock out the operator after he stops the train and after a few deaths here and there the bandits remove all passengers from the train and shoot one brave person who tries to escape. The thieves take the train and the operator tries to get up, but collapses again; it is his daughter who finds him and throws water on him to wake him up. The operator then goes to a dance hall nearby and gathers a group of men to stop the bandits and get the train back.
There is a scene at the end of the film of one of the bandits looking straight into the camera; the director – Edwin S. Porter – has said that that scene, which is usually placed at the end, could have also been placed at the beginning.
Released in 1903, Porter’s The Great Train Robbery is the first Western film ever made, it “[invented] so many of the conventions and recognisable iconography on which the Western was built. It is a straightforward story of a train heist and the subsequent hunting of the robbers, told with pace and with lots of action.” There are some arguments that call it the first action film ever made – though this is could definitely be debated
The 10 minute long short silent film was a massive hit and, according to the book The Rough Guide to Film, The Great Train Robbery was the first ‘blockbuster’ and one of the most popular until the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 (which is also on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die).
The film was not only a major success in terms of audience, it also used new filming techniques that are extremely popular in modern cinema including on location shooting, camera movement, cross-cutting and composite editing. While the only thing I actually understand from those four techniques is on location shooting there are people who are more familiar with filming techniques who would probably geek out over these things.
These new techniques can’t, unfortunately, be tied to originating with The Great Train Robbery as it was highly influenced by a film that was released earlier on in 1903: the British film A Daring Daylight Burglary.
Much like with A Trip to the Moon, The Great Train Robbery has a visible influence on modern cinema. Both Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott paid homage to the film’s last scene mentioned above in Goodfellas and American Gangster respectively.
The film also got the Arthur treatment appearing on the children’s show but with dialogue done by the characters in the show.
It is clear that this film has proved its significance and why it is included on any must see lists.
I have to admit, I’m not a fan of the Western film genre; it is something that hasn’t ever interested me. I decided to watch The Great Train Robbery not because of the time (though the shortness does help when on a busy timeframe!) but because it was the first of something.
Whenever I read or watch something new I’m looking to learn something and by watching TGTR I was able to see (like with A Trip to the Moon) the origins of films as we know it today.
I’m no expert on film, nor will I ever claim to be, but to be able to sit in my bedroom and watch a movie from over 100 years ago and see where this crazy thing we call the film industry started is pretty remarkable.
Before I watched TGTR I was watching Guardians of the Galaxy and seeing how films have come leaps and bounds from where they began is enough to set the goosebumps off.
Silent films may not be your thing, but I think it is important to see where everything we love today came from. We love superhero origin stories, so why not sit back and enjoy origin films themselves.
Since The Great Train Robbery is now public domain you can watch the entirety of it on YouTube which makes it that much easier to access! Enjoy!
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