The Great Train Robbery (1903)

The Great Train Robbery is a 1903 American silent short Western film made by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company. It follows a gang of outlaws who hold up and rob a steam locomotive at a station in the American West, flee across mountainous terrain, and are finally defeated by a posse of locals. The short film draws on many sources, including a robust existing tradition of Western films, recent European innovations in film technique, the play of the same name by Scott Marble, and possibly real-life incidents involving outlaws such as Butch Cassidy.

Porter produced (i.e. supervised; the job title “film director” had not yet been developed) and photographed the film in New York and New Jersey in November 1903; the Edison studio began selling it to vaudeville houses and other venues in the following month. The cast included Justus D. Barnes and G. M. Anderson, who may have also helped with planning and staging. Porter’s storytelling approach, though not particularly innovative or unusual for 1903, allowed him to include many popular techniques of the time, including scenes staged in wide shots, a matte effect, and an attempt to indicate simultaneous action across multiple scenes. Camera panslocation shooting, and moments of violent action helped give the film a sense of rough-edged immediacy. A special close-up shot, which was unconnected to the story and could either begin or end the film depending on the projectionist’s whim, showed Barnes, as the outlaw leader, emptying his gun directly into the camera.

Due in part to its popular and accessible subject matter, as well as to its dynamic action and violence, the film was an unprecedented commercial success. Though it did not significantly influence or advance the Western film genre, it was widely distributed and copied, including in a parody by Porter himself. During the twentieth century, inaccurate legends about the film developed, claiming it was the first Western or even the first film to tell a story; though film scholars have repeatedly disproved these claims, demonstrating that the film was a stylistic dead-end for its maker and genre, the film’s commercial success and mythic place in American film lore remain undisputed. The film, especially the close-up of Barnes, has become iconic in American culture, appearing in numerous film and television references and homages.

  • The silent movie tells the complete story without any text
  • The movie includes many of the themes of following westerns, with outlaws, violence, chases, and gunfights
  • It even includes the scene of a tenderfoot being made to dance as others shoot at his feet