The Great Train Robbery (1903)


Food: On a busy night in Park City’s peak season, we found ourselves at a restaurant called Butchers Chophouse & Bar, where we were able to grab a corner table. I ordered an old fashion cocktail to drink, and got a simple meal: Ceasar salad and the soup of the day, which was clam chowder. It hit the spot after a long day, and was a really nice, easy atmosphere.
Film: “The Great Train Robbery,” made in 1903, is a 12 minute film that has since gone down in history as one of the first American Westerns, imploring innovative filmmaking techniques that paved the way for films to come. It was created by Edwin S. Porter, who was a former cameraman (Edison Studios) when he decided to write, produce and direct this film, which was put together in one month before being released in eleven theaters in New York before traveling across the country.

Opening at a train station, where a clerk is held at gunpoint and forced to hand over the train schedule to a crew of bandits, this black and white silent film showcases a double exposure shot where activity (the moving train, and people shuffling inside of it) is shown out the window of the station.

Once the bandits are outside, the shot features a water tank while the train arrives. In an unprecedented camera trick at the time, the film pans from left to right to follow the characters onto the train. As the robbery erupts into a series of violent interactions, we see several more special effects techniques that were revolutionary for this time period. Some of the shots were colorized, where the film was painted – specifically, one explosion was a bright orange color, emphasizing the effect more. Porter also used a match shot to switch an actor out with a dummy, so that the character could be thrown from the train. This was the first film to shoot on location, as opposed to only filming in a studio. A final trailblazing technique worth-mentioning is the cross cutting that is used at one point in the film, where two scenes are shown to be occurring simultaneously, but in different locations – which is highly used today. Without which, films like “A Trip to the Moon” tended to appear more like stage plays.

The final shot is so iconic, it appeared in several films to follow. We see an actual clip of the original footage in the opening credits of “Tombstone” (1993), but “Spellbound” (1945), “American Gangster” (2007) and, of course, “Goodfellas” (1990) gave an homage to it by showing a character turn the gun directly at the audience and shot.

In 1990, “The Great Train Robbery” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. It is considered the first American Western. If you are a film lover, it is worth watching to understand and appreciate the creatives who pioneered many of the filmmaking methods we see but likely take for granted today.


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