The Great Train Robbery (1903): Porter and the Wild East

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If Méliès’ Trip to the Moon was significant for its fantastical escapism, Edwin S. Porter’s masterwork the following year made a strong case for realism in cinema. Remembered today as the medium’s first true Western,  The Great Train Robbery caused a sensation during its day for its revolutionary film effects. The movie executed two successful pans, introduced on-location shooting and a complicated (for its time) narrative arc. Today, it sits in perpetual competition to Méliès’ Trip to the Moon as the finest film of the 1900s.

Porter, a former Edison cameraman, was impressed by crime films of the day, and set about making his own. Favouring a rustic feel over the artificial in-studio production, Porter took his crew to locations just outside Edison studios in New Jersey. The result was a grittier adventure that showed the landscape as it actually was, not as elaborate set decorations interpreted it. Furthermore, the movie presented “real” people and real consequences, a true descendant of the documentary form pioneered by the medium’s first filmmakers. Although still clinging to the standard theatricality of the day, Porter’s rendition of the crime narrative was a landmark development in the burgeoning style of realism.

The Great Train Robbery is also notable for its fourth-wall-breaking finale. After the story wraps up and the bad guys have been taken care of, the closing shot portrays one of the outlaws (Justus D. Barnes) firing point blank at the audience. It is a unique ending, and maintains is stylistic flourish even to the modern viewer. In the context of its time, I predict that this ending was a relic of the old Edisonian filmmaking style. This shot closely matches Edison Studio’s documentary shorts of the late 1800s, and I assume it was meant to replicate that style. Whatever the origins, the shot is striking, and appears to pre-date the French New Wave movement of the 1950s. It is yet another example of the experimental nature of early cinema: an artform that is devoid of pronounced standards, and relishing in it.

 

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