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.


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.

Jun 10, 2009 | Full Review…

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

Jun 10, 2009 | Rating: 3/4 | Full Review…

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

Mar 21, 2009 | Rating: 4/5

The most widely viewed picture of its time.

May 31, 2007 | Rating: B | Full Review…

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

Aug 23, 2001 | Full Review…

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

Super Reviewer


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

Super Reviewer

Love that opening shot

Ken Stachnik
Ken Stachnik

Super Reviewer

Edwin S. Porter's landmark film from the early days of cinema is amazingly accomplished, not to mention immensely entertaining. I was surprised at how contemporary it felt. Yes, it was filmed with one camera and much of it was done on a soundstage, but the story elements -- train robbers, exploding safes, gunned-down bystanders, fistfights aboard the tops of moving trains, chases on horseback -- are as exciting and watchable as most action films of more recent vintage. Technically, there are well-done explosions, some color sequences, outdoor on location scenes, and the iconic ending where the cowboy shoots directly at the audience. I applaud this film and accept it as the classic it is. NOTE: I saw this film as part of a compilation of early films from the Edison Company...yeah, THAT Edison. Other memorable ones include: *Life of a Fireman, which was just what it sounds like -- a group of firefighters are called to a housefire. It was thrilling and even moving, as when a child is rescued from the house and is reunited with his mother outside. *The Kleptomaniac, which may be the first film with a social message. A well-to-do woman and a woman living in poverty with small children are both arrested for stealing, from a department store and from a grocer respectively. The wealthy woman is set free, while the poor woman is found guilty and incarcerated. The ending shot is the Scales of Justice out of balance due to a bag of money in one of the trays. * Two films -- The Kiss and What Happened on 23rd Street -- show that even early in the days of cinema (we're talking circa 1900), naughtiness put asses in the seats. The Kiss was notorious in its day. It's a simple peck between two rather plain people, but it caused a furor because it was considered vulgar. What Happened on 23rd Street starts off as a simple street scene that climaxes with *SPOILER ALERT* a young woman's skirt being blown up by the wind from a subway (?) grate. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Cindy I
Cindy I

Super Reviewer

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