THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903)

   Edwin S. Porter (director).
   Essentially, this was the first narrative film—the first moving picture that related a fictional story—and it was the first Western. It was produced by Edison and Company. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the film occurs at the end of the last scene. The robbery is completed. The bandits are caught. Suddenly, on-screen and looking directly at the audience, one of the outlaws points a gun at the audience and fires. For the original audience, this action probably had the same effect that I-Max films have today when they send us on roller coaster rides or drop us out of airplanes. Even this early in the silent film era, the last scene is color tinted. Among the curiosities of this production is the fact that Porter would have considered a Western for the subject of this experimental film. After all, it was 1903 and he filmed a “Western” from an eastern perspective. There is nothing about this film that is Western, other than the suggested geographical setting, which is actually New Jersey. What makes this more than just a very recent train robbery in New Jersey?
   As far as the film’s narrative goes, it is purely a vignette. There is no character development, no motivation. Despite the fact that the money being stolen from the train presumably belongs to corporate interests, the ordinary folk seem deeply concerned that the robbers be caught, which says much about the political focus of the film. After all, why should it matter to the townspeople? The robbery also involves a murder, but one might wonder if Porter has the passenger killed primarily to deflect sympathy. Nevertheless, with this film, cinema Westerns were invented.
   See also ANDERSON, Broncho Billy; BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID; FORD, John; STUNTS.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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