The Great Train Robbery

Director: Edwin S. Porter

1903

“Most histories regard The Great Train Robbery as the first Western, initiating a genre that was in a few short years to come the most popular in American cinema.” (Edward Buscombe, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 22) Despite this being disputed over the years, Buscombe states that “train robberies had since the days of Jesse James been part of Western lore, and other iconic elements such as six-shooters, cowboy hats, and horses all serve to give the film a genuine Western feel.”

Overall the film feels quite wooden and stilted. Having said that it is more to do with the acting then the narrative. And there is definitely a narrative – a rather complex one when you consider that cinema was still very much in its infancy in 1903! Not only is there a narrative but it is a multi-stringed one that initially follows the robbers but returns to their first victim who raises the alarm resulting in the downfall of the villains. Even just a year after Le Voyage dans la Lune the editing is already so much smoother. It has a surprisingly large cast of extras with a seemingly unending line of passengers being removed from the train.

I find the use of music in silent films (as an accompaniment of course!) interesting, especially when you consider how many rave reviews The Artist is attracting at the moment. I think sometimes we underestimate the storytelling power music can have and take it for granted in cinema today. Maybe the success of The Artist is a forerunner to seeing a return to stellar musical scores accompanying films in a more prominent storytelling role rather than being relegated to background noise.

The scene with the gunman shooting directly at the screen (placed at the end in the version I watched) is the most striking image of the whole film. Partly because it is the one scene where you can see any sort of detail but also because it is directed at the audience. There is no escaping it. Having said that it could be seen as breaking the illusion of film by drawing attention to the fact that we are watching something created within a camera but that may just be a modern take on it.

Surprisingly I didn’t hate it which is unusual for me as Westerns tend to bore me – it probably as something to do with the fact that the film is only 12 minutes long! I can see in it where a lot of the conventions of the Western genre originate and grow from … more so than the science-fiction conventions within Le Voyage dans la Lune I have to say. This may be due to the Western genre staying essentially the same where as the science-fiction genre has expanded more to include an enormous variety of narratives, conventions and themes.

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