One of the first crime films ever made, Edwin Porter’s 1903 silent short is a fascinating glimpse of early cinema, especially because it’s edited in a cogent fashion and establishes the kind of basic template for cops versus robbers drama routinely used by directors and screenwriters today. As the title attests, the film – which runs to around 12 minutes at 18 frames per second – concerns the hijacking of a train: we see a telegraph operator overpowered and later the surprisingly vicious murders of two train crewmen (a guard and a fireman), followed by the robbery of the passengers; the bandits escape with their loot, but a posse is formed when the telegraph operator manages to inform a group of local men about the crime, leading to a deadly showdown in the woods. The film ends with one of the robbers (Justin D. Barnes) directly facing the camera before firing his gun at the audience. Obviously there’s a lot more window dressing required for a modern, full-length feature, principally via the fleshing out of characters so that we understand their motives, but the basic driving force behind crime films today remains the same: audiences get a thrill from seeing such acts committed, but are more likely to go home happy if the perpetrators are brought to justice by the end. There’s plenty of charm in Porter’s film: the effects and colours that appear sporadically were painted on afterwards, while there’s even room for a scene of light relief, in which several characters dance together outside a saloon. The ending, as Mark Cousins points out in The Story Of Film, was repeated many years later by Martin Scorsese, who ended GoodFellas with a similar shot of Joe Pesci firing a gun at the audience. One wonders what the theatregoers who saw The Great Train Robbery at the time would have made of such a direct act of cinematic violence, or indeed the very idea of a character being brought back to life just moments after his on-screen death had been witnessed.
Directed by: Edwin S. Porter.
Written by: Edwin S. Porter, Scott Marble.
Starring: Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, Walter Cameron.
Cinematography: Edwin S. Porter, Blair Smith.
Editing: Edwin S. Porter.
Running Time: 12 minutes.