03 August 2008

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

d. Edwin S. Porter / USA / 12 mins.

It's difficult to evaluate a film like The Great Train Robbery, a 12-minute long western that was among the first narrative films to be produced in America. If you're looking at it from a historical point of view, it's obviously a five-star feature in terms of its milestone status and technical innovations, much like D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation would be. (Both films are justly preserved in the National Film Registry, but God, I can't think of any rational person who, if asked what movie they'd like to watch, would give either film as an answer.) Director Edwin S. Porter was a former cameraman for Thomas Edison's studio, and he was among the first to utilize the basic cinematic techniques that we see so often today and never think about needing to be invented: cross-cutting, slight camera movement, linear editing, on-location shooting, etc. (Unlike Griffith, however, Porter stubbornly refused to repeat techniques as he used them and he drifted into obscurity.)

As entertainment, it's no surprise The Great Train Robbery runs way too thin – thinner than even other silent films that would have been its contemporary, like A Trip To the Moon (made by Georges Méliès in France a year earlier). For the most part, silent films didn't really start to becoming wildly entertaining until German expressionism and the comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; those productions were great and continue to feel spontaneous today despite their age. Spontaneity is not the strongest suit of The Great Train Robbery; its most exciting element is when a cowboy points his gun right into the camera and fires. Supposedly audiences at the turn of the century shrieked with fear, but I'd be surprised if your pulse quickened by one beat. The movie is short, simple, and widely available on the Internet (in public domain, of course), so it's worth Googling to see how American filmmaking began and how far it's come.


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