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.

Le Voyage dans la Lune

Director: George Melies

1902

“Generally considered the first example of science-fiction cinema. It offers many elements characteristic of the genre – a spaceship, the discovery of a new frontier – and establishes most of its conventions.” (Chiara Ferrari, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 20)

Imagine what it must have been like to watch this for the first time in 1902! Watching it now in 2012 it is understandably quite clunky but you have to remember that at the time Le Voyage dans la Lune was groundbreaking and just beginning to utilize techniques that have now become commonplace such as the dissolves. In some ways it is not only the first science-fiction movie but also the first special effects movie.

Watching it again my initial thought to the opening scene is that Professor Lupin’s office/classroom in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) bears a rather striking resemblance to the room the astronomers meet in which shows just how much it is still influencing work over 100 years later.

It is by no means the smoothest piece of filmmaking ever but that just makes it all the more delightful to watch. And the cuts are clearly noticeable unlike films today when the editing is so smooth the audience hardly realize it is there at all. The framing is out of sorts, with people’s heads cut off as well as some of the action, but people were still learning – or rather creating – the rules of this new media at the time.

Melies clearly drew on his theatrical background – capturing many of the techniques employed on stage in a camera instead. However he also uses superimposition to show off just what was capable in the new ‘moving pictures’.

“Melies was able to offer a fantasy constructed for pure entertainment. He opened the doors to feature film artists by visually expressing his creativity in a way utterly uncommon to movies at the time.” (Chiara Ferrari, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 20) Without Melies we wouldn’t now have directors like James Cameron, who pushes new digital techniques past their limits (Avatar, 2009) or Christopher Nolan, who creates as many ‘special effects’ in camera as possible (Inception, 2010).

La Voyage dans la Lune is a remarkable piece of cinematic history and kind of charming to watch even now. The face of cinema as we know it today owes a great debt to George Melies!!