Directed by Edwin S. Porter
Starting off my journey into the Western genre, I start with the very first. Or, at least the first popularly remembered Western film. There were at least a few films to take place in a Western setting before this 1903 film, but aside from their IMDB pages I couldn’t find much about them. Also, one has to consider the length of these films, as The Great Train Robbery is barely 12 minutes long and was revolutionary at the time, especially for its action-packed and composite narrative.
In summary, a few bandits break into a telegraph office for a railroad, forcing the operator to stop a train and give the engineer orders to stop at a water tank. The bandits proceed to knock out the operator and tie him up before rallying at the water tank to sneak aboard the train. Two of the bandits kill a man in the luggage and mail car before using explosives to open a locked box, while the other two kill the train’s fireman and hold the engineer at gunpoint to stop the train. The passengers are then herded off of the train and relieved of their expensive belongings. One passenger attempts to escape but is quickly stopped by a bullet to the back. While the other passengers crowd around the downed man, the bandits disconnect the train to the passenger cars and use it to escape to where they are keeping their horses. Meanwhile, the telegraph operator’s daughter shows up at his office to bring him food, and she uses the meal’s knife to cut his ropes and a cup of water to wake him up. Now conscious, the operator runs to a dance hall, where people are forcing a fancily-dressed person from the eastern U.S. to dance at gunpoint for some reason, and rallies them into a posse to hunt down the bandits. After a chase and a shootout, all the bandits are killed and the valuables are recovered.
I won’t go to great lengths to summarize most of the other film’s I watch, but I feel it is important in this case. Just watching this 12 minute film, I can see so many iconic tropes of the genre already coming to life. For one, the tales of train robberies in the West were very common. In fact, not only was this film named and based after an 1896 play, but train heists were still a common occurrence in the time period, as not three years before THE Butch Cassady had robbed a train. (Kramer, 2013) This also means that this film was made in the exact period it was representing. It is fascinating to think about how the Old West died around the time the film industry was just beginning.
Speaking of the time period, this movie is extremely dated in its visual effects, but it is more than worth noting that this film was a technical marvel. The fact that the narrative changed location and had scenes taking place at the same time was very uncommon. The violent action was especially visceral for the time, no matter how silly some of the actors looked when they pretended to be shot. One death scene was so brutal that I was able to ignore that it was clearly a dummy having his head caved in by a lump of coal. And lastly, I want to commend that little girl who played the daughter. What is melodramatic overacting today was Grade A silent film acting back then. I salute you, little girl, you were a standout.
Going back to the specific tropes associated with the action and Western genre, there were two I wanted to specifically point out. Did you know that this was one of the first examples of the so-called Bullet Dance?
That worn-out gag of making someone dance via guns is older than the first public radio broadcast. It is almost as old as film-making itself. Remember that the next time you see it. One should respect their elders.
My last observation is the film’s last shot, which according to the director could also have been placed at the beginning. The bandit leader, played by the appropriately named Justus D. Barnes, shoots his pistol directly into the camera. Aside from the thoughts of early film-goers ducking for cover at this scene, it is fascinating how this image has stuck. Not only will this scene be referenced in Tombstone, a Western made nine decades after, it also is very reminiscent of the most iconic ‘shot’ of James Bond.
And even outside of film, think of all the posters you’ve seen of the subject looking and pointing directly at the view. I can think of one very particular example.
Still, this image is so common for action-oriented media, I’d be here all day just finding more examples. Instead, I’ll just finish by saying that The Great Train Robbery is a very outstanding film, for its revolutionary aspects both on film and behind the scenes. If you have 12 minutes to spare, I’d suggest you watch it. Due to its significance, it is a preserved film by the Library of Congress and can be found on their Youtube channel here.
Kramer, Fritzi. “The Great Train Robbery (1903) A Silent Film Review.” Movies Silently, 8 Apr. 2016, Accessed 4 Feb. 2019, moviessilently.com/2013/11/03/the-great-train-robbery-1903-a-silent-film-review/.
Porter, Edwin S., director. “The Great Train Robbery.” Youtube, Library of Congress, 11 Dec. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=In3mRDX0uqk.