The Great Train Robbery (1903)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Genre: Western and Short Running Time: 11 min.

Release Date: December 1st, 1903 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Edwin S. Porter Actors: A.C. Abadie, Gilbert M. Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, Walter Cameron, Donald Gallaher, Frank Hanaway




n this turn-of-the-century short Western, copyrighted in 1903, a clerk at a train station is held up at gunpoint by bandits. They wait in the office for the locomotive to pull in and then board it, intent on stealing the precious cash cargo. Bank employees are shot and thrown over the railing, passengers are taken hostage, and the engine is detached for use as a getaway vehicle. Meanwhile, a celebration and dance take place in the town, where a sheriff, who is alerted of the holdup, forms a posse and gives chase.

It stands as a work of art considering what was achievable at the time, as well as a milestone for moviemaking possibilities, especially in the field of narrative storytelling. Although incomplex, the series of shots and simple actions are astonishingly thrilling. The acting isn’t convincingly realistic, but that’s an expected trait consistent with most early productions. A bank man is shot and falls to the ground with his arm stiffly stuck in midair (he eventually moves to a more comfortable position), and a hostage makes a break for it but is gunned down – the single shot finds him reeling in agony for several seconds, flamboyantly and dramatically quivering as he collapses in the dirt.

This 11-minute actioner also features special effects and rare techniques, which are particularly impressive since the film already served as a popular advancement in moviemaking just by depicting a story.  Double exposure, cross cutting, a camera in motion, and shooting on location are at the top of the list. Although it’s not the first motion picture to utilize such methods, it’s certainly the most famous in the United States. An orange-colored explosion, a young girl in a red cloak, and brownish gunshots with individually colored frames are also included for pizzazz, while daring stunts consist of battling atop a train and ferociously tossing a dummy overboard. Directed by Edwin S. Porter (who would later direct Mary Pickford in “Tess of the Storm Country” in 1914), “The Great Train Robbery” also represents an early example of the basic editing of scenes into a cohesive fictional adventure.

It is often screened and viewed for historical purposes and poses a unique situation for critical analysis: how to appropriately evaluate (and assign a rating to) something that is essentially the first of its kind. Filmmakers striving to create longer, more complex, more inspiring stories and visual feats would inevitably surpass everything presented within. By today’s standards, there isn’t anything remarkable about the footage, but recognizing its age and the extreme limitations of the art form in the early 1900s makes the imagery utterly fascinating. And with its final scene of a bandit firing his weapon directly at the screen, “The Great Train Robbery” is a prime example of a film universally recognized for a single shot.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10