The Great Train Robbery
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Starring: Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, A.C. Abadie, Justus D. Barnes
The Great Train Robbery is one of the earliest examples of the evolution of film from simply filming everyday events to using the camera to tell a well-orchestrated story. Although it by no means passes muster in terms of the sensibilities of modern film audiences, it earns its place in film history for its narrative significance.
Clocking in at a brisk 12 minutes (and viewable on youtube, should you be curious about it), The Great Train Robbery tells a story of, um… a train robbery. But it does so with twelve separate and distinct scenes, each of which succinctly furthers the plot. Bandits take over a train official’s station, gagging him, then hijacking the train. They force the passengers off, stealing their wallets and purses, and shooting at a passenger who tries to escape, then unhitch the passenger cars from the train engine. The train official gets freed of his binds and alerts the sheriff, who then chases down the bandits. In a final standoff in the woods, the bandits are killed in a gunfight with authorities. The final shot of the film is the most famous one: Justus D. Barnes, in full cowboy attire, stares straight into the camera and fires his gun several times at the screen.
What I enjoy most about The Great Train Robbery is that it’s one of the first examples of a film branching out beyond a simple recorded stage play. They did not just go into a theater, set up the camera, then act out the movie. The film was shot on location (albeit not in the West – it was shot in New Jersey) and there are crosscuts between the scenes. We see the bandits getting away, then cut back to the tied up train official, then back to the bandits. They used an actual working train. They use actual horses in the chase sequences. There are stunts and special effects. Although it exists in a vastly simpler form compared to today’s blockbusters, The Great Train Robbery has all the basic elements of modern film. It is not just a recording of daily life. It is not just a recording of a stage play. It is truly a movie.
Do I love The Great Train Robbery? No. I mean, I can’t. It’s too primitive for me. But I can absolutely appreciate it, and that’s what I like about it. It has enormous historical significance, and was wildly successful when it was released. Apparently audiences back then loved Westerns and violence just as much as audiences today do.
Arbitrary rating: Very difficult to rate, because I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it. It’s an interest piece, an educational artifact, but not something I’d ever watch for funsies. So… um… 6/10. Sure. Why not. Watch it! You won’t be sorry!