The Great Train Robbery (1903)

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Movie Info

Director Edwin S. Porter created film history when he completed the 13 sequences for the Great Train Robbery, released in 1903 but based on an 1896 story by Scott Marble. The film's title was also the same as a popular, contemporary stage melodrama. Outstanding for the first parallel development of separate, simultaneous scenes (intercutting), and the first close-up (of an outlaw firing off a shot right at the audience), the Great Train Robbery is among the earliest narrative films with a "Western" setting - although when it was released it was considered a part of the violent crime genre that dominated the movie screens. "Westerns" would come later. The opening scenes show the outlaws holding up the passengers and robbing the mail car in the train, and then they escape on horseback. While the early action is going on, Porter cuts to the telegraph operator who is knocked unconscious, with the train visible through the station window. Then there is a fight on the tender and the train is also visible, and it is shown again on the tracks when the locomotive is unhooked from the rest of the cars, and from the interior when the passengers are robbed - the train constantly provides a point of reference from different perspectives. The telegraph operator regains consciousness after the outlaws have galloped off, and he makes it to the dance hall to get a posse together. In the final sequences, the posse takes off to hunt down the outlaws and the chase is on, ending in the defeat of the robbers. In a total of 12 minutes of screen time, Porter changed the way films were made for all future time, he established several classic Western themes (the chase on horseback, use of the six-shooter), and he took advantage of every known dramatic technique for his day. For example, he modeled segments of his action on current crimes that had been in the news and he exploited the railway subgenre and the public's interest in train travel. The film was successful for years after it was released, a testament to Porter's cinematographic talents.
Rating: NR
Genre: Action & Adventure , Classics , Western
Directed By: Edwin S. Porter
Written By: Edwin S. Porter
In Theaters: wide
On DVD:
Runtime:

Cast

A.C. Abadie
as Sheriff
George Barnes
as Bandit
Walter Cameron
as Sheriff
Marie Murray
as Dance-Hall Dancer
Mary Snow
as Little Girl
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News & Interviews for The Great Train Robbery

Critic Reviews for The Great Train Robbery

All Critics (6)

This has proved to be the most influential of all the early US films and it was the first to tell a definite story.

Full Review… | June 10, 2009
Film4

A landmark in the development of the American film industry and the narrative form.

Full Review… | June 10, 2009
TV Guide

Must see viewing for this very brief silent film, the first American movie telling a sequenced story.

March 21, 2009
Video-Reviewmaster.com

No excerpt available.

December 5, 2007
Old School Reviews

The most widely viewed picture of its time.

Full Review… | May 30, 2007
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

One of the milestones in film history was the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter

Full Review… | August 23, 2001
Tim Dirks' The Greatest Films

Audience Reviews for The Great Train Robbery

Of more value as a historical document than an entertaintment but fascinating on that level.

jay nixon
jay nixon
½

A year after George Melies made history with his cute little sci-fi picture, American film maverick Edwin S. Porter cemented his own legacy with this breezy western action film. Based on an 1896 story by Scott Marble ,this 1903 caper follows a group of bandits as they rob a train, make their escape, then have a confrontation with a group of local townspeople bent on vengeance. That's it. There's more to it than that though. Yeah, it's pretty simple and straightforward, but this film pioneered a lot of now commonplace techniques like cross-cut editing, location shooting, and double exposures. And, unlike A Trip to the Moon, this one is more like real life as opposed to fantasy, and feels a tad documentary like. This is a pretty influential and important film, and basically set the standard for the western genre especially, but also the action/heist genre as a whole. Unfortunately the version I saw had no soundtrack other than the cranking of the camera, and that's my only real complaint. Yeah, the cranking kinda fits with the movements of the train, but it gets real tedious real quick, especially since it plays for just under 12 minutes straight. Some of the acting is over the top and hammy, and it makes things feel dated and cheesy, but it also kinda adds to the charm. It's ridiculously tame by today's standards, but I also have to give this a lot of credit for being ballsy with the violence, something that was probably rather jarring for audiences 110 years ago. All in all, this is a fun movie. Yeah, it has since been eclipsed 1,000 times over, and, while it really deserves classic status for it's historical, social, and aesthetic merits, it also still works fine on its own terms as just a simple, entertaining movie.

Chris Weber
Chris Weber

Love that opening shot

Ken Stachnik
Ken Stachnik

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