The Great Train Robbery: an in-depth look at a classic

March 13, 2014 5:00 pm0 commentsViews: 1
Graphic by Cian Kim '14

Graphic by Cian Kim ’14

The Great Train Robbery is one of the first cohesive narratives in the history of cinematography. The classic silent film was made in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter and is only 10 minutes long. Although the DVD features a soundtrack, this was not the case for the original screening of the film. Many silent films didn’t have a composed score, so music was instead improvised by musicians at the screening. Porter was originally an exhibitor of films and had a strong idea of what film-goers liked and wanted to see. He was often involved in post-production, where exhibitors, such as himself, would buy short films and then sequence them in order to produce a story.

As he entered the field of filmmaking, Porter began to shoot his own pieces and stitch them together. Although he was not the only person to approach film in this way, he further developed the idea of “narrative organization.” The Great Train Robbery is one of Porter’s greatest masterpieces, and utilizes continuity editing as well as a logical progression of shots. Though this concept is general practice now, this was one of the first films that had edits to show consecutive action from different angles. The film’s message reminds us that no one is safe from the greedy and even those considered to be good are not what they seem.

The story follows four bandits who hold up a train station, tie up the telegraph operator and rob a locomotive. The telegraph officer is untied by his daughter and rouses a group of men from the village. The film then cuts to a scene of the robbers dancing with some women in a tavern. A newcomer arrives, who the men torment and force to dance while they shoot at his feet. Variations of this particular scene have reappeared in Western films since and is just one example of The Great Train Robbery’s impact on cinematographic development.

The men, roused by the telegraph operator from the held-up station, form a posse and pursue the robbers to a forest. Here, the robbers are caught and finally are killed. The film ends with the posse surrounding the stolen money and leaving us to question the trustworthiness of even these supposedly good men.

Porter used a number of special effects which added to the integrity of his film. Most surprising was the depiction of one of the bandits throwing a train worker off the side of the train roof, for which a dummy was used. Porter also used the limitations of black and white filming to his advantage. Rather than leaving each shot entirely black and white, he had painters take frames and, in certain places, such as on gun smoke or a lady’s dress, hand-fill in each frame with the respective color. As a result, these flashes of color appear throughout the film as subtle points of contrast and lead the eye through the scene.

Though a film about bandits, the art of the cinema was not ignored. When inside either the station or on the train, the compositions were balanced artistically, which was necessary because Porter’s shots were long and distant, partially due to shooting on-location. While each shot tended to be spatially balanced, he left his foregrounds more-or-less empty, indicating a conscious effort to separate the audience from the action.

Porter filmed a shot separate from the narrative that could go either at the beginning or end of the movie, though most film exhibitors placed it at the end because it terrified novice movie-goers so much they ran from the theater. With a quick cut we are confronted with a close-up of the chief bandit, glaring at us unflinchingly. This surprising and radical change to the continuity of the previous shots is a fitting prologue or epilogue, tying together the tone of the movie. With his shirt tinted green and his neck scarf purple and white, he raises his gun to us and pulls the trigger – a final, lasting note which continues to reverberate in the mind even after the film has ended. The colors, in addition to the agressiveness of the shot reinforces the moral message whether it is placed at the beginning or the end.

Porter’s 1903 film was a success due its originality and the depth of the message it sent. By on-location filming and particular special effects, Porter was the first to manage and convey a strong, lasting, moral impression on the audience; the result was a highly innovative piece of filmmaking, serving as an historical pillar which stirred the development of classic Hollywood film-editing today.