Friday, 24 January 2014

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Country: U.S.A.
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Starring: Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson, Justus D. Barnes
Length: 10 minutes

A gang of robbers force a telegraph operator to stop a train, then board and rob it. Later, the operator assembles a posse at a local dance hall who, in turn, hunt down and kill the bandits. In a final shot, the bandit leader menacingly shoots at the audience.

Significance/Notable Achievements:
A massive box office hit that played in theatres and Nickelodeons across America in 1904 and 1905, The Great Train Robbery is considered the first narrative film (i.e. following a cohesive storyline) and the first Western, giving birth to that genre. Fourteen scenes make up the 10-minute film inspired by the real-life 1900 robbery of the Union Pacific Railway's No. 3 train in Table Rock, Wyoming by the "Hole in the Wall" gang. Technical innovations included on-location shooting, camera movement, cross cutting (two concurrent scenes in different locations), and composite editing (combining images from different sources into a single shot). 

These breakthroughs resulted in an intensified feeling on the part of the audience that it was “in” the movie, watching everything unfold from the POV of the robbers or victims. Porter's unflinching portrayal of violence and death jars us now as it did then, and a scene in which a man shoots at another's feet to make him dance is one of the most copied moments in cinematic history. A final scene in which outlaw leader Justus D. Barnes shoots directly at the audience is said to have inspired the opening montage of the James Bond films.   

What a quantum leap forward from Exiting the Factory and Voyage dans la lune! Unlike the fixed camera positions used in those earlier films and the constant awareness that we were watching a movie, here we're on the roof of a train, watching breathlessly as thieves commandeer the speeding behemoth and throw innocent victims to their death on the tracks below. Some have argued that this scene and others qualify Great Train Robbery not only as the first Western, but also as the first horror movie.

The relatively sophisticated story, fast action, multi-angle views, and effective cross-cutting between simultaneous events represented a seismic shift in both storytelling and film production, arguable creating a greater "wow" factor than many of today's stylistic changes and CGI wonders if only because they occurred at a time when film was still young. (If Lumière's Factory was equivalent to the horse and buggy, and Méliès' Voyage was the Model T, then Porter's Great Train Robbery was a Cadillac V-16.)

But there's something else going on in Great Train Robbery that shouldn't be passed by too quickly, something that speaks volumes regarding the power of film. Porter is not only appealing to his audience's feelings, he is appealing to our sense of moral outrage. As the story unfolds, the bandits' crimes are visualized as so calculated and abhorrent that when they finally receive their just desserts, our response is as moral and visceral as it is emotional. In this sense, Porter's film is as ideological as it is entertaining and could be considered one of the first films to make people think a certain way or stimulate the audience's social consciousness. Cinema's most enlightened (and diabolical) filmmakers have been thusly manipulating viewers ever since. 

Very exciting and enjoyable! Cool to see characters out and about instead of being restricted to a stage or one location. The panning camera shots really built a lot of anticipation for the scenes that followed. So far, this is the first film we've watched that has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, as well as a moral and a ton of suspense. Easy to see how this served as one of the early cinematic building blocks for what was to come. And of course, I learned a lot. For example, next time I get a hankerin' to rob a bank, I ain't gonna leave no varmints alive to go round up a posse and hunt me down like the dog I am! Yeehaaa!!

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