Edwin S. Porter The Great Train Robbery 1903

  • Not on view

An 11-minute-long escapade telling the story of a gang of bandits who rob a passenger train, The Great Train Robbery is a spectacle- and drama-laden film. It was a breakout success, transcending everything that had been screened before it. Its director was Edwin S. Porter, a camera operator in the Edison Laboratory, who became one of the most successful early American filmmakers. While the earliest Edison films were actualities or brief fictional scenarios, by 1902, technological advancements in motion picture cameras and celluloid made possible longer, more complex narratives like The Great Train Robbery.

The film’s popularity stemmed largely from Porter’s formal innovations, significantly, his use of editing to cut together disparate shots into a narrative of shifting perspectives and locations. Though 11 minutes may seem fleeting today, this length marks a milestone in American filmmaking. Audiences who flocked to movie theaters across the United States to see The Great Train Robbery would have never before been treated to such a long spectacle. The minutes were packed with action and special effects that would have felt bold and exciting, while its moments of abject violence—as when a bandit shoots a passenger point-blank—disturbed audiences not yet accustomed to violence in film.

Porter filmed the scenes that take place inside the train and in other indoor spaces like the railroad administration office on set, using double exposure to create the illusion of the train passing by the window of the office or the landscape rushing past the train car’s open door. He took his camera outside to shoot such climactic scenes as the pursuit and ultimate defeat of the bandits by a band of heroes. He also mounted his camera to the top of the moving train, framing the bandits’ infiltration from above and behind to heighten the sense of their stealth.

Moments of color, hand-painted onto the celluloid, enhanced select prints (including the one in MoMA’s collection) of this otherwise black-and-white film. Dynamite and guns explode in orange-yellow bursts and women attend a dance in bright dresses. While the story proceeds largely chronologically, Porter sequenced scenes to indicate simultaneously occurring action, creating a narrative with a layered sense of time. The film closes with a shot of one of the bandits facing the camera and firing his gun directly at it—startling audience members by placing them in the position of the train’s unfortunate passengers.

Credit
Preserved with funding from The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Fund, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Film Foundation
Object number
W1629
Department
Film
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