The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Western, Drama | December 1903

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HISTORY

The Great Train Robbery was Edwin S. Porter's fourth of several films that established a new narrative standard in the movie industry. Others were 1902's Jack and the Beanstalk, and 1903's Life of an American Fireman and Uncle Tom's Cabin (see entries). It debuted in Dec 1903, as evidenced by an advertisement announcing its availability in the 12 Dec 1903 New York Clipper, and an item in the 19 Dec 1903 issue that listed showings at the Comedy Theatre in New York City, where the film was accompanied by live acts including “handcuff experts” the Selkanos, comedienne Florence Foster, and monologist Al Wilson. Various modern sources cite a premiere at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City, and alternately at Luban’s Museum on 14th Street, a week before Christmas 1903. By Jun 1904, the film had become Edison Mfg. Co.’s most popular offering, to date, and by summer 1904, it had inspired a live-theater attraction at Luna Park in Coney Island, as noted in the 23 Jun 1906 Var, which gave the show a mixed review but referred to it as “the feature of the park.” Considered by many historians and critics to be the first Western, it continued as an unmatched success for over a decade, until the release of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 (see entry). The 21 Dec 2003 Associated Press called it “the first sure-fire movie attraction.”
       The plot was said to be inspired by recent newspaper headlines and the American public’s general fascination with the “Wild West” around the turn of ... More Less

The Great Train Robbery was Edwin S. Porter's fourth of several films that established a new narrative standard in the movie industry. Others were 1902's Jack and the Beanstalk, and 1903's Life of an American Fireman and Uncle Tom's Cabin (see entries). It debuted in Dec 1903, as evidenced by an advertisement announcing its availability in the 12 Dec 1903 New York Clipper, and an item in the 19 Dec 1903 issue that listed showings at the Comedy Theatre in New York City, where the film was accompanied by live acts including “handcuff experts” the Selkanos, comedienne Florence Foster, and monologist Al Wilson. Various modern sources cite a premiere at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City, and alternately at Luban’s Museum on 14th Street, a week before Christmas 1903. By Jun 1904, the film had become Edison Mfg. Co.’s most popular offering, to date, and by summer 1904, it had inspired a live-theater attraction at Luna Park in Coney Island, as noted in the 23 Jun 1906 Var, which gave the show a mixed review but referred to it as “the feature of the park.” Considered by many historians and critics to be the first Western, it continued as an unmatched success for over a decade, until the release of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 (see entry). The 21 Dec 2003 Associated Press called it “the first sure-fire movie attraction.”
       The plot was said to be inspired by recent newspaper headlines and the American public’s general fascination with the “Wild West” around the turn of the century, which was fed by real-life stories of outlaws and fictional pulp magazine tales of the same ilk. Wishing to “capitalize on the phenomenon,” as noted in the 9 Nov 2003 Salt Lake Tribune, Edwin S. Porter solicited the cooperation of the Lackawanna Railroad line outside Dover, NJ, to film a train heist. The 2 Jun 1940 NYT stated that the railroad company allowed Porter access in exchange for “a set of living pictures that could properly be used as an advertisement.” The train’s real-life engineer and fireman were included in the cast of around fifty actors, the 26 Jul 1925 NYT noted. Other location shooting took place in the Essex County Park reservation in New Jersey, and interiors were shot at the Edison studio in New York City.
       Several innovative techniques on display in the picture went on to become industry standards, including “panning shots, tracking shots and close-ups, like the notorious image of a bandit [George Barnes] shooting his pistol directly at the audience,” as stated in the Salt Lake Tribune. The 2 Jun 1940 NYT claimed the film “contained the complete basic vocabulary of closeup, flashback, cross-cutting, and other devices since taken for granted by moviegoers.” In a 24 Dec 1995 Newsday piece, Jack Mathews credited Porter with laying the foundation of “screen narration” through his use of montage and editing. Special effects included rear projection (or “double exposure”), which gave the appearance of passing background scenery as the bandits were shown breaking into the mail car. Some prints included hand-tinting to make certain elements stand out from the black-and-white scenery, including gun smoke and the image of an innocent child dressed in red (a device that was echoed ninety years later in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List [1993, see entry]).
       The Great Train Robbery entailed fourteen scenes, and was described by NYT as “phenomenally long” for its time, with around a twelve-minute running time. Generally accepted as the most iconic shot was the final image of actor George Barnes pointing his gun at the camera. It was cited in the 26 Jul 1925 NYT as “the first use of the close-up in movies.” An article addressing the history of violence in films, published in the 17 Feb 2013 LAT, claimed that audiences found it so realistic “they believed they were going to be shot.” Cited among other violent scenes were several shootouts, and a sequence in which the train’s fireman was bludgeoned to death with a lump of coal and thrown from the moving train.
       Recognizing the early Western as “outstanding” and “worthy of historic preservation,” the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, established in 1988, added The Great Train Robbery to its collection in 1990, as part of its second group of twenty-five inductees. Although the 26 Jul 1925 NYT stated that it marked the motion picture debut of “Broncho Billy” Anderson (a.k.a. G. M. Anderson), who went on to co-found Essanay Studios, the actor had previously appeared in The Messenger Boy’s Mistake (1903, see entry).
       The Thomas Edison catalog summarizes the film as follows: “Scene I. Interior of railroad telegraph office. Two masked robbers enter and compel the operator to set the 'signal block' to stop the approaching train, and make him write a fictitious order to the engineer to take water at this station, instead of 'Red Lodge,' the regular watering stop. The train comes to a stand-still; conductor comes to the window, and the frightened operator delivers the order while the bandits crouch out of sight, at the same time keeping him covered with their revolvers. As soon as the conductor leaves they fall upon the operator, bind and gag him, and hastily depart to catch the moving train.
       “Scene II. Railroad water tank. The bandits are hiding behind the tank as the train under the false order, stops to take water. Just before she pulls out they stealthily board the train between the express car and the tender.
       “Scene III. Interior of express car. Messenger is busily engaged. An unusual sound alarms him. He goes to the door, peeps through the keyhole and discovers two men trying to break in. He starts back bewildered, but, quickly recovering, he hastily locks the strong box containing the valuables and throws the key through the open side door. Drawing his revolver, he crouches behind a desk. In the meantime the two robbers have succeeded in breaking in the door and enter cautiously. The messenger opens fire and a desperate pistol duel takes place in which the messenger is killed. One of the robbers stands watch while the other tries to open the treasure box. Finding it locked he vainly searches the messenger for the key, and blows the safe open with dynamite. Securing the valuables and mail bags they leave the car.
       “Scene IV. This thrilling scene shows the tender and interior of the locomotive cab, while the train is running forty miles an hour. While two of the bandits have been robbing the mail car, two others climb over the tender. One of them holds up the engineer while the other covers the fireman, who seizes a coal shovel and climbs up on the tender where a desperate fight takes place. They struggle fiercely over the tank and narrowly escape being hurled over the side of the tender. Finally they fall, with the robber on top. He seizes a lump of coal, and strikes the fireman on the head until he becomes senseless. He then hurls the body from the swiftly moving train. The bandits then compel the engineer to bring the train to a stop.
       “Scene V. Shows the train coming to a stop. The engineer leaves the locomotive, uncouples it from the train, and pulls ahead about one hundred feet, while the robbers hold their pistols to his face.
       “Scene VI. Exterior scene showing train. The bandits compel the passengers to leave the coaches, 'hands up,' and line up along the tracks. One of the robbers covers them with a revolver in each hand, while the others relieve the passengers of their valuables. A passenger attempts to escape, and is instantly shot down. Securing everything of value, the band terrorize the passengers by firing their revolvers in the air, while they make their escape to the locomotive.
       “Scene VII. The desperadoes board the locomotive with their booty, compel the engineer to start, and disappear in the distance.
       “Scene VIII. The robbers bring the engine to a stop several miles from the scene of the "Hold Up," and take to the mountains.
       “Scene IX. A beautiful scene in a valley. The bandits come down the side of a hill, cross a narrow stream, mounting their horses, and make for the wilderness.
       “Scene X. Interior of telegraph office. The operator lies bound and gagged on the floor. After struggling to his feet he leans on the table, and telegraphs for assistance by manipulating the key with his chin, and then faints from exhaustion. His little daughter enters with his dinner pail. She cuts the ropes, throws a glass of water in his face and restores him to consciousness, and, recalling his thrilling experience, he rushes out to give the alarm.
       “Scene XI. Interior of a typical Western dance hall. Shows a number of men and women in a lively quadrille. A "Tenderfoot" is quickly spotted and pushed to the center of the hall, and compelled to do a jig, while the bystanders amuse themselves by shooting dangerously close to his feet. Suddenly the door opens and the half dead telegraph operator staggers in. The dance breaks up in confusion. The men secure their rifles and hastily leave the room.
       “Scene XII. Shows the mounted robbers dashing down a rugged hill at a terrific pace, followed closely by a large posse, both parties firing as they ride. One of the desperadoes is shot and plunges headlong from his horse. Staggering to his feet he fires at the nearest pursuer, only to be shot dead a moment later.
       “Scene XIII. The three remaining bandits, thinking they have eluded the pursuers, have dismounted from their horses, and after carefully surveying the surroundings, they start to examine the contents of the mail pouches. They are so grossly engaged in their work that they do not realize the approaching danger until too late. The pursuers, having left their horses, steal noiselessly down upon them until they are completely surrounded. A desperate battle then takes place, and after a brave stand all the robbers and several of the posse bite the dust.
       “Scene XIV. A life size picture of Barnes, leader of the outlaw band, taking aim and firing point blank at the audience. The resulting excitement is great. This scene can be used to begin or end the picture.”
       The U.S. Library of Congress catalog gives the following description: “This is the complete version from the original, starting with the conspiracy scenes through the station agent's office, to the switch engine hold-up of the train, the robbery of the passengers, and the capture of the bandits by the posse as they are burying their ill-gotten gains.” More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Associated Press
23 Oct 1990
p. 10.
ECJ4
pp. 5-7.
ECJ6
pp. 9-11.
ECJY4
p. 16.
EMP
p. 126.
KOCC
Nov 1905
pp. 229-232.
LCMP
p. 24, column 1.
LCPP
p. 189.
Los Angeles Times
17 Feb 2013
Section D, p. 6.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
21 Dec 2003
Section B, p. 7.
Motion Picture News
2 Apr 1910
p. 11ar.
Moving Picture World
11 Jan 1908
p. 25ta.
New York Clipper
12 Dec 1903
p. 1016.
New York Clipper
19 Dec 1903
p. 1029.
New York Clipper
18 Jun 1904
p. 400.
New York Times
26 Jul 1925.
---
New York Times
2 Jun 1940.
---
Newsday
24 Dec 1995
p. 4.
NFAC3
p. 164.
Salt Lake Tribune
9 Nov 2003
Section D, p. 1.
Treasures from the Film Archives
p. 244.
Variety
23 Jun 1906
p. 13.
Washington Post
2 Jan 2000
Section G, p. 1.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT

NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANIES
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTOR
PHOTOGRAPHY
Addl Camera
DETAILS
Release Date:
December 1903
Premiere Information:
New York opening: week of 19 December 1903 at the Comedy Theatre
Copyright Claimant:
Thomas A. Edison
Copyright Date:
1 December 1903
Copyright Number:
H38748
Physical Properties:
Silent
Black and White
Length(in feet):
740
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Two masked robbers enter a railroad telegraph office, force the operator to set the “signal block” to stop the approaching train, and make him write an order to the engineer to take water at this station instead of at Red Lodge, the regular watering stop. When the train comes to a standstill, the conductor comes to the window and the frightened operator, covered by the bandits crouching out of sight, delivers the order. The conductor leaves, and the bandits bind and gag the operator, then hurry after the moving train. They hide behind the water tank as the train stops to take water. Just before it pulls out they board between the express car and the tender. In the express car, the messenger is busily engaged. An unusual sound alarms him. He goes to the door, peeps through the keyhole and discovers two men trying to break in. He hastily locks the strong box containing the valuables and throws the key through the open side door. Drawing his revolver, he crouches behind a desk. The two robbers break in the door and enter cautiously. The messenger opens fire, and is killed in the return volley. One of the robbers stands watch while the other tries to open the treasure box. He vainly searches the messenger for the key, and blows the safe open with dynamite. Securing the valuables and mail bags they leave. While two of the bandits have been robbing the mail car, two others climb over the tender. One holds up the engineer while the other covers the fireman, who seizes a coal shovel and climbs up on the tender where a desperate fight takes place. ... +


Two masked robbers enter a railroad telegraph office, force the operator to set the “signal block” to stop the approaching train, and make him write an order to the engineer to take water at this station instead of at Red Lodge, the regular watering stop. When the train comes to a standstill, the conductor comes to the window and the frightened operator, covered by the bandits crouching out of sight, delivers the order. The conductor leaves, and the bandits bind and gag the operator, then hurry after the moving train. They hide behind the water tank as the train stops to take water. Just before it pulls out they board between the express car and the tender. In the express car, the messenger is busily engaged. An unusual sound alarms him. He goes to the door, peeps through the keyhole and discovers two men trying to break in. He hastily locks the strong box containing the valuables and throws the key through the open side door. Drawing his revolver, he crouches behind a desk. The two robbers break in the door and enter cautiously. The messenger opens fire, and is killed in the return volley. One of the robbers stands watch while the other tries to open the treasure box. He vainly searches the messenger for the key, and blows the safe open with dynamite. Securing the valuables and mail bags they leave. While two of the bandits have been robbing the mail car, two others climb over the tender. One holds up the engineer while the other covers the fireman, who seizes a coal shovel and climbs up on the tender where a desperate fight takes place. They struggle over the tank and narrowly escape being hurled over the side of the tender. Finally they fall, with the robber on top. He seizes a lump of coal, and strikes the fireman on the head until he becomes senseless. He then hurls the body from the swiftly moving train. The bandits then compel the engineer to bring the train to a stop. The engineer leaves the locomotive, uncouples it from the train, and pulls ahead about one hundred feet, while the robbers hold their pistols to his face. The bandits compel the passengers to leave the coaches with their hands up and line up along the tracks. One of the robbers covers them with a revolver in each hand, while the others relieve the passengers of their valuables. A passenger attempts to escape, and is instantly shot down. Securing everything of value, the band terrorize the passengers by firing their revolvers in the air, while they make their escape to the locomotive. The desperadoes board the locomotive with their booty, compel the engineer to start, and disappear in the distance. The robbers bring the engine to a stop several miles from the scene of the holdup, and take to the mountains. In a beautiful valley, the bandits come down the side of a hill, cross a narrow stream, and, mounting their horses, make for the wilderness. In a telegraph office, the operator lies bound and gagged on the floor. After struggling to his feet he leans on the table, and telegraphs for assistance by manipulating the key with his chin, and then faints from exhaustion. His little daughter enters with his dinner pail. She cuts the ropes, throws a glass of water in his face and restores him to consciousness, and, recalling his thrilling experience, he rushes out to give the alarm. At a Western dance hall, a number of men and women take part in a lively quadrille. A "Tenderfoot" is quickly spotted and pushed to the center of the hall, and compelled to do a jig, while the bystanders amuse themselves by shooting dangerously close to his feet. Suddenly the door opens and the half-dead telegraph operator staggers in. The dance breaks up in confusion. The men secure their rifles and hastily leave the room. The mounted robbers dash down a rugged hill at a terrific pace, followed closely by a large posse, both parties firing as they ride. One of the desperadoes is shot and plunges headlong from his horse. Staggering to his feet he fires at the nearest pursuer, only to be shot dead a moment later. The three remaining bandits, thinking they have eluded the pursuers, have dismounted from their horses, and after carefully surveying the surroundings, they start to examine the contents of the mail pouches. They are so grossly engaged in their work that they do not realize the approaching danger until too late. The pursuers, having left their horses, steal noiselessly down upon them until they are completely surrounded. A desperate battle then takes place, and after a brave stand all the robbers and several of the posse bite the dust. Barnes, leader of the outlaw band, takes aim and fires point blank, straight ahead. +

GENRE
Genres:
Sub-genre:
Crime


Subject
Subject (Major):

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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