Doing It First: The Great Train Robbery

Doing It First: The Great Train Robbery

Edison Manufacturing Company / Kleine Optical Company

Release date: December 1st, 1903
Certificate: N/A
Running time: 12 minutes

Director: Edwin S. Porter
Writers: Edwin S. Porter, Scott Marble

Cast: Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, Walter Cameron

Over the years we’ve witnessed so many great films being remade. No genre seems to be safe, from the horror classics like Halloween and Psycho to even westerns such as True Grit. Yet the phenomenon of remakes isn’t really such a new thing.

Since the birth of film well over 100 years ago, stories have been told and retold countless times and one of the first films to ever be remade was The Great Train Robbery in 1904. The original, made a year earlier in 1903 was directed by Edwin S. Porter from a screenplay he wrote based on an 1896 story by Scott Marble.

The Great Train Robbery

At only 12 minutes long, which at that time was quite epic, The Great Train Robbery was the first western and among the first films to follow a narrative. In contrast with earlier films like the Lumière Brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895), which simply showed a train arriving at a station, Porter’s film set a milestone in filmmaking not just by weaving a story into what was being shown but also by his use of techniques including cross cutting, double exposure composite editing and on location shooting.

Opening with a title card it then cuts to the interior of a railroad telegraph office where we see two masked robbers burst in and order the operator at gunpoint to stop the approaching train. Once he’s done this they promptly knock him unconscious, bind his hands and feet and then leave. After sneaking onto the train, the robbers engage in a gun fight with a messenger and then blow up a safe. Stealing the money from the safe isn’t enough though; when the train comes to a stop they force the passengers out at gunpoint. With their hands held in the air, the robbers remove any valuables they have on them.

Next is their escape, and as they make their way to the mountains the operator they left bound on the floor finally comes to with the help of his little daughter. He manages to get word out about the robbery and before long an entire posse is on the way to find the robbers for a thrilling showdown.

The Great Train Robbery

Yet what shocked and thrilled most of all was the final scene – where George Barnes, who plays the leader of the robbers, faces the audience, pulls out his gun and fires directly at the camera.

The Great Train Robbery became such a hit that Siegmund Lubin wanted to make his own version where he thought the story would be told better. Unfortunately his version did not have the impact he hoped for. Great Train Robbery (1904), as a result, is often considered a work of plagiarism by the Lubin Film Company. The original continues to inspire and amaze filmmakers today, as Philip C. Dimare notes:

The final scene (or sometimes the first, depending on the whim of the exhibitor) shows a close-up of the bandit leader raising his gun and firing directly into the camera. Thrilling audiences of the time, it is the film’s most famous moment and it has inspired many similar scenes since, including those at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007).

  • Philip C. Dimare Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia (2011) Abcclio

With its story inspired by the real-life robberies of the four-man “Hole in the Wall” gang headed by George Leroy Parker aka Butch Cassidy, The Great Train Robbery is truly a film that stood out when it was made and has since then stood the test of time. While stories are told and retold time and time again I always like to remember that that’s why they exist in the first place, but the challenge in re-telling a story is adding something of yourself to it, which Lubin didn’t do.

About Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.