Today’s post is the first part of a lengthy two part essay in which I analyze one of the most significant early films, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903, as well as tell the story of its making. The second part will be published next week.
In the silent film era, trains and movies were a match made in heaven. Nothing symbolized movement in the industrial age like the locomotive, and the early filmmakers knew that movement is what excited audiences the most. Therefore, from the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat) in 1896, which legendarily caused early audiences to flee in terror as a train progressed towards the camera (and therefore, by extension, the viewer) through the simple panoramic films dubbed “phantom rides,” which saw cameras being placed aboard trains to create a “you are there” effect, to the incredible locomotive imagery in late silent masterpieces like Buster Keaton’s The General and Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera, no other single image is more closely associated with silent cinema than that of the high speed train.
In 1896, there were at least six theatrical plays being produced in different parts of the United States that involved trotting out elaborate puffing locomotives onstage. Thomas Edison, who had dabbled in the development of electric trains before turning his attention to motion pictures, saw one such play in New York City, Scott Marble’s four-act melodrama The Great Train Robbery. Impressed by both the play’s narrative as well as its pull-out-the-stops special effects, Edison filed it away as a potential subject for a future motion picture. Seven years later, he would realize this ambition. (Bianculi)
In the late 1890s, movies had slowly transitioned away from one-shot actualities into more complex multi-shot narratives. In the first years of the twentieth century, copies of imported European “story films,” duped (not always legally) by Edison, George Spoor and others, were widely distributed in the United States and had become massively popular with American audiences. This was especially true of science-fiction/fantasy movies showcasing trick photography and special effects such as Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) and crime films involving exciting chases between police officers and criminals such as Frank S. Mottershaw’s A Daring Daylight Burglary.
American movie studios soon found it incumbent upon themselves to imitate both the form and content of their European counterparts in order to compete. Consequently, as the Americans imitated the Europeans and the Europeans returned the favor, the language of cinema began to develop at a very rapid pace, becoming extremely sophisticated by the end of the decade. In 1903, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, an outfit headed by Edison’s former employee W.K.L. Dickson, ramped up its commitment to using motion pictures as a vehicle for telling stories. In September, they began producing the first “westerns,” a genre that combined the narratives of the English crime films of the day with the purely American iconography of the popular dime novels and stage shows about cowboys and Indians and the “settling” of the west. But it would be Edison himself who would produce the blockbuster movie that effectively inaugurated the new genre and established its conventions.
In 1899, former projectionist Edwin S. Porter joined the Edison Manufacturing Company as a camera operator and director. By the time he made The Great Train Robbery at the end of 1903, Porter had already directed forty-five short films and served as cinematographer on many more. In this astonishing and prolific run of movies, Porter proved himself a true pioneer (if not quite the “father of the story film” that some histories have claimed) who was responsible for popularizing many of the rules of film grammar that turn-of-the-20th century audiences were experiencing for the very first time. A case in point is Life of an American Fireman from early 1903, a “rescue film” that renders space cinematically (as opposed to theatrically) by showing the same event from multiple perspectives in consecutive scenes.
In the fall of ’03, Porter teamed up with Gilbert M. Anderson, the stage name of a theatrical actor born Maxwell H. Aronson, who would eventually co-found Essanay Studios with George Spoor and become one of the most significant figures in Chicago’s nascent movie scene. Tall, handsome and only in his early twenties at the time, Anderson was a natural in front of the camera but he also worked behind the scenes as a “gag man,” helping Porter to brainstorm story ideas. The two collaborated on multiple film projects for the remainder of the year, culminating in their final 1903 production, The Great Train Robbery, which was shot in November and released one month later. This game-changing movie would ultimately alter the destinies of both men forever. (Musser)
Although set in a nameless frontier region of the American west, The Great Train Robbery was filmed entirely in New York and New Jersey on both studio sets as well as actual locations. The film tells the story of a group of bandits who rob a telegraph office/train station, then board the train, where they proceed to rob both the safe and its passengers before making a daring getaway. Meanwhile, the telegraph operator enters a saloon and rounds up a posse to go after the robbers in an attempt to recover the stolen loot.
Among the innovative techniques employed by Porter are parallel editing (cutting back and forth between the bandits and the telegraph operator to suggest simultaneous action), double exposure composite editing (an early “special effect” that allowed multiple shots to be combined in a single frame), camera movement (tilt, pan and tracking shots are all utilized), as well as a primitive but delightful use of color tinting on some prints – since each frame was tinted by hand this was an extremely painstaking process.
One of the most unusual aspects of the film is its famous ending: after a shootout in the woods in which all of the bandits have been killed, Porter unexpectedly cuts to a close-up (the only one in the movie) for his final shot; one of the dead bandits has mysteriously reappeared to point his gun directly at the camera and “shoot” into the audience. The End. It should be noted that a now-famous letter sent by Edison Manufacturing to projectionists across America gave them the option of projecting this shot at either the end or the beginning of the movie. All versions of the film on home video place it at the end – where its impact is undoubtedly more effective.
Whereas the Lumiere brothers had scared audiences unintentionally with their train film, there was no doubt as to the frenzy Edwin S. Porter intended to incite with his more calculated assault on the audience. This shot would become one of the most iconic images of the early silent cinema, right alongside of the rocket ship hitting the Man in the Moon in the eye in A Trip to the Moon, and would serve as an inspiration for the opening of the James Bond movies as well as the ending of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
In an interview in the late 1950s, Anderson recalled Porter’s rapid pace of production: “We made it all in two days. Then it was finished and taken to the reviewing room. After it was reviewed, they all looked up and they were dubious whether it would go or not. And Porter said, ‘Well, the only way we can find out is to try it out in a theater.’” (Brownlow)
To be continued . . .
1. Bianculli, Anthony J. Iron Rails in the Garden State: Tales of New Jersey Railroading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008. Print.
2. Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California, 1991. Print.
3. Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood, the Pioneers. New York: Knopf, 1979. Print.