This movie, along with A Trip to the Moon, are the two earliest films on the 1001 List and are the only films that come before the Griffith era, when Birth of a Nation radically redefined the medium of film and set the rules for what a movie would look like. The Great Train Robbery is noted for its relatively complex narrative and its use of multiple scenes to progress the story. It’s definitely a neat gem of the early days of film and one that I enjoyed getting to watch.
In the reading I’ve done on the film, multiple sources praise the film for using various scenes in different locations to advance an intricate plot. But I would say that A Trip to the Moon in 1902 did the exact same thing. If The Great Train Robbery is a more “complex” movie, it’s not by much. I suppose that because the films come from different countries, it was a big deal for the United States to have made such advancements on their own. It’s not too important really, but we are approaching a time period with this film where the United States takes off as the leader of world cinema, picking up French ideas and cinematic technology and perfecting them into the blockbusters we know today. Perhaps The Great Train Robbery is a major factor in this transition.
I will say that I do prefer this film over A Trip to the Moon for its cinematography. While the French film had every shot recorded from a straight-on perspective as if the audience is watching a stage play, this is the earliest film I’ve seen that plays with camera angles a bit more. Director Edwin S. Porter is experimenting with perspective by having these traditional proscenium style shots but also having moments that dramatize the action such as the horses racing in the direction of the camera (pictured above) and the famous shot of the bandit shooting his pistol right at the screen. I would say these techniques characterize this as the first action movie. You see early inklings of a contemporary blockbuster drama all over the place. There are even a few pieces of comedic relief in the movie that silent films are known for using so well.
I guess I could criticize the film for some stuff, but I’d really be missing the point. This movie exceeded audience expectations massively. Just the fact that the pictures were moving was enough to astound audiences in 1903. There are even tales that in the early days of silent film, people in the audience would duck and scream when the train was coming at them. People had never seen this medium before, and The Great Train Robbery was probably one of the first movies that a lot of people saw. It was their introduction to film, so I’m sure they loved it. You can only praise a film like this for ways it goes over the top – the cool camerawork, the interesting plot, the dramatic tension – because none of these things were even necessary yet. Early silent films invented these techniques, and it’s really astounding to see them come into fruition in movies like The Great Train Robbery.
I’m not too sure about how the sound was supposed to work with this one. A lot of silent movies had certain pieces that would be played over top of the footage, or sometimes they would just play whatever music they wanted in the screenings that they thought would fit the film. The version of Great Train Robbery that I watched (some YouTube clip with a lot of views) had no music at all. In fact, it artificially included the sound of the projector clinking along to project the footage. It was sort of a cool effect to help me get a sense of the time period, but I felt that I was maybe missing out on the full experience without some sound. Maybe this movie was usually played without music, though. That’s just something that bothered me a bit.
Ultimately, this is a really impressive piece of work. Porter didn’t rely on any text on the screen to tell his story, but it’s still very clear and exciting from start to finish. I’ve said it before: I think silent film is one of the most admirable types of movies you can make. It’s very challenging to tell a story without using sound, and films like The Great Train Robbery manage to do so beautifully. The cinematic direction is really interesting, and I think this is why early films hold my attention better than a lot of more recent stuff. We may not be able to enjoy early film as much as audiences of the time because of the age in which we live, but with the perspective we have today, you can’t help but be amazed at how great these silent movies are. Under such limitations and with no clear rules as to how this whole “movie” thing was supposed to work, directors such as Porter and George Melies show themselves to be wonderful artists, and the silent film era is an inspiring time for filmmakers even to this day.
Films Left to Watch: 971