In 1903, The Great Train Robbery, a (by today’s standards) short, twelve-minute film from Thomas Edison’s Edison Films production company would forever transform motion pictures from curious novelty to the emerging art form of the coming century.
The film is commonly referred to as being the first early film to tell a story, but that’s only partially true. Train Robbery‘s director Edwin Porter, a former Edison Films cameraman, had already directed Life Of An American Fireman earlier that year, which depicted a fire fighter rescuing a woman from a burning home. But with Great Train Robbery, Porter has tightened up his editing somewhat, creating the concept of cross-cutting at the same time. Porter also used double exposures to create the illusion of the passing landscape seen outside the mail car’s door.
Shot partially in Essex County, New Jersey, the Lackawanna Rail Line and Essex County Park make serviceable stand-ins for Wyoming, though it is doubtful many in the audience could tell the difference. Many prints of the film that circulated featured the addition of color in several scenes through a process known as hand-tinting. The version below does not feature any hand-tinting, though it can be seen in this shortened version here.)
More appropriately referred to as the first western film, The Great Train Robbery can also be seen as the first heist film, a genre still going strong with this weekend’s premier of The Bank Job. The film’s storyline was reportedly inspired by the August 29, 1900 robbery of a Union Pacific Railroad train outside of Table Rock, Wyoming. In that train robbery, four members of George Leroy “Butch Cassidy” Parker’s Wild Bunch gang (The name was changed to “The Hole In The Wall Gang” for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid to avoid confusion with Sam Peckinpah’s own film The Wild Bunch) forced the conductor to uncouple the passenger cars from the rest of the train before blowing up the mail car safe to get at approximately $5,000 in cash.
Unlike a majority of films from the earliest days of motion pictures, The Great Train Robbery‘s original nitrate negative still exists. Held by the Library of Congress, new prints could conceivably be struck at any time.
Another first for The Great Train Robbery– It was the first film to achieve such popularity that it spawned a parody. Also produced by Edison, 1905’s The Little Train Robbery featured an all-child cast and a storyline where the gang of outlaws hold-up a miniature train to steal its cargo of dolls and candy. You can see portion of that film here.