Posted: 8/30/00

The Great Train Robbery (1903)
by Del Harvey

A look at a short film that may have spawned an industry.

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Nearly 100 years old, The Great Train Robbery is arguably the first narrative film in history. Wherever it ends up in the fact books, this film changed the motion picture industry and our perceptions of it, forever. Only a little more than 10 minutes in total running time, this one-reeler was comprised of a number of innovative techniques which are considered standards by today's generation of filmmakers. A full story told in just 14 silent, black and white scenes, it startled audiences everywhere and was the inspiration for an entire industry.

It is the stuff of contemporary mythology that some audiences would run screaming from showings of this film, believing they were actually witnessing a hold up. Many people had never even heard of the motion picture, thus had no concept of the thing. Even though the film was in black and white, these early viewers must have imagined it to be somesort of trick of the light. The events taking place in the film occurred just three years prior to the first date of release. Even though the film is based on an actual train robbery committed by four of Butch Cassady's "Hole In The Wall" Gang, it is possible that the viewers could have been witnessing the real thing. Most startling to many would have been the final scene, in which the leader of the outlaws points his gun directly at the audience and fires.

The film was conceived, filmed, and edited by Edwin S. Porter, a photographer who worked many years for Thomas Edison. It was shot in New Jersey and Delaware, in areas which looked convincingly enough like the Old West for most audiences, and started a trend which most filmmakers readily took to - fooling the audience with simple tricks of the camera.

The film had no actors of note, as there were no motion pictures and no theatres to play them in, and certainly no television to advertise them on. As the film was hand carried up and down and across the country, it must have evoked something wild and unimaginable in the viewers, not unlike those feelings experienced by earlier pioneers of the of the new world, or the early settlers during the opening of the west. This was all very new and exciting, the stuff of new frontiers, and it brought excitement and escape into all our lives.

Del Harvey, founder of FM, lives in Chicago. He is a veteran of The Directors Guild Of America, The Walt Disney Company, and Lucasfilm.

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