In this lesson we are going to examine the first narrative film ever made: “The Great Train Robbery”. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it.
The Great Train Robbery is in the public domain and you can watch it here:
The scenarios used to create and market this film are reproduced here:
1 INTERIOR OF RAILROAD TELEGRAPH OFFICE.
Two masked robbers enter and compel the operator to get the “signal block” to stop the approaching train, and make him write a fictitious order to the engineer to take water at this station, instead of “Red Lodge,” the regular watering stop. The train comes to a standstill (seen through window of office); the conductor comes to the window, and the frightened operator delivers the order while the bandits crouch out of sight, at the same time keeping him covered with their revolvers. As soon as the conductor leaves, they fall upon the operator, bind and gag him, and hastily depart to catch the moving train.
2 RAILROAD WATER TOWER.
The bandits are hiding behind the tank as the train, under the false order, stops to take water. Just before she pulls
out they stealthily board the train between the express car and the tender.
3 INTERIOR OF EXPRESS CAR.
Messenger is busily engaged. An unusual sound alarms him. He goes to the door, peeps through the keyhole and discovers two men trying to break in. He starts back bewildered, but, quickly recovering, he hastily locks the strong box containing the valuables and throws the key through the open side door. Drawing his revolver, he crouches behind a desk. In the meantime, the two robbers have succeeded in breaking in the door and enter cautiously. The messenger opens fire, and a desperate pistol duel takes place in which the messenger is
killed. One of the robbers stands watch while the other tries to open the treasure box. Finding it locked, he vainly
searches the messenger for the key, and blows the safe open with dynamite. Securing the valuables and mail bags they leave the car.
4 THE TENDER AND INTERIOR OF THE LOCOMOTIVE CAB
This thrilling scene shows THE TENDER AND INTERIOR OF THE LOCOMOTIVE CAB, while the the train is running forty miles an hour. While two of the bandits have been robbing the mail car, two others climb over the tender. One of them holds up the engineer while the other covers the fireman, who seizes a coal shovel and climbs up on the tender, where a desperate fight takes place. They struggle fiercely all over the tank and narrowly escape being hurled over the side of the tender. Finally they fall, with the robber on top. He seizes a lump
of coal, and strikes the fireman on the head until he becomes senseless. He then hurls the body from the swiftly moving train. The bandits then compel the engineer to bring the train to a stop.
5 SHOWS THE TRAIN COMING TO A STOP
Shows THE TRAIN coming to a stop. The engineer leaves the locomotive, uncouples it from the train, and pulls ahead about 100 feet while the robbers hold their pistols to his face.
6 EXTERIOR SCENE SHOWING TRAIN.
The bandits compel the passengers to leave the coaches, “hands up,” and line up along the tracks. One of the robbers covers them with a revolver in each hand, while the others relieve the passengers of their valuables. A passenger attempts to escape, and is instantly shot down. Securing everything of value, the band terrorize the passengers by firing their revolvers in the air, while they make their escape to the locomotive.
The desperadoes board the locomotive with this booty, compel the engineer to start, and disappear in the distance.
8 OFF TO THE MOUNTAINS
The robbers bring the engine to a stop several miles from the scene of the “hold up,” and take to the mountains.
A beautiful scene in A VALLEY. The bandits come down the side of a hill, across a narrow stream, mounting their horses, and make for the wilderness.
10 INTERIOR OF TELEGRAPH OFFICE.
The operator lies bound and gagged on the floor. After struggling to his feet, he leans on the table, and telegraphs
for assistance by manipulating the key with his chin, and then faints from exhaustion. His little daughter enters with
his dinner pail. She cuts the rope, throws a glass of water in his face, restores him to consciousness, and, recalling
his thrilling experience, he rushes out to give the alarm.
11 INTERIOR OF A TYPICAL WESTERN DANCE HALL.
Shows a number of men and women in a lively quadrille. A “tenderfoot” is quickly spotted and pushed to the center of
the hall, and compelled to do a jig, while bystanders amuse themselves by shooting dangerously close to his feet. Suddenly the door opens and the half-dead telegraph operator staggers in. The dance breaks up in confusion. The men secure their rifles and hastily leave the room.
12 RUGGED HILL
Shows the mounted robbers dashing down A RUGGED HILL at a terrific pace, followed closely by a large posse, both parties firing as they ride. One of the desperadoes is shot and plunges headlong from his horse. Staggering to his feet, he fires at the nearest pursuer, only to be shot dead a moment later.
13 BATTLE TO THE DEATH
The three remaining bandits, thinking they have eluded the pursuers, have dismounted from their horses, and after
carefully surveying their surroundings, they start to examine the contents of the mail pouches. They are so grossly engaged in their work that they do not realize the approaching danger until too late. The pursuers, having left their horses, steal noiselessly down upon them until they are completely surrounded. A desperate battle then takes place, and after a brave stand all the robbers and some of the posse bite the dust.
A life-size [close-up] picture of Barnes, leader of the outlaw band, taking aim and firing point-blank at the audience. The resulting excitement is great. This scene can be used to begin or end the picture.
The first narrative film directed and photographed by a former Edison cameraman Edwin S. Porter, The Great Train Robbery (1903) was a one-reel action film filmed in November of 1903 on the East Coast of the United states in various locations in New Jersey (Edison’s New York Studio, Essex Country Park and along the Lacawanna Railroad). It was released in December of the same year.
The precursor to the western film genre was based on an 1896 story and play by Scott Marble. The film’s title was also the same as a popular contemporary stage melodrama. It was the most popular and commercially successful film of the pre-nickelodeon era, and established the notion that film could be a commercially-viable medium.
The film used several innovative film techniques of the time including parellel editing, camera movement, location shooting, jump cuts and pan shots. It is also the originator of the “shooting at someone’s feet to get them to dance” scene that has become cliche in westerns.
Martin Scorsese on “The Great Train Robbery” and its influence on “GoodFellas”