Thursday 4 October 2007

The Great Train Robbery (1903) Edwin S Porter

Gangsters break into the stationmaster's office just before the train arrives, and they have guns drawn. Then they tie him up and hop onto the train. More bad guys turn up soon too, climbing onboard themselves when the train stops to take on water. Of course, as the title would imply they break into the car that contains the strongbox, blow it then hijack the train completely and run off with the loot. They're also brutal men, callously bludgeoning one of the drivers to death and throwing him off the moving train. They rob all the passengers at gunpoint and shoot anyone who tries to run away. Needless to say, the good guys win in the end.

Looking from the perspective of a filmgoer in 2007, there are a lot of problems with this film. The camera never moves, staying still and looking out at the action. The body thrown off the train is obviously a dummy. There are long scenes while we wait for something to happen that really do nothing other than take up screen time. The story is very linear, with most scenes uninterrupted takes, and the acting is not particularly exemplary. Not something of major note, you'd think.

On the other hand this film was made in 1903, which is amazingly more than a century ago. It is very possibly the most influential film in cinematic history because it introduced a whole new concept to film: the plot. Up unntil this point in time, movies were generally one of two things. Firstly, there were the 'realities', which depicted nothing more than a slice of time, such as a street corner for a few minutes. Secondly, there were the trick films, made famous by people like Georges Melies, which make for fascinating viewing but are really little more than an excuse for a bit of cinematic manipulation. You could even call them magic tricks that cheat because they need outside intervention to make them believable. Yet this is something else entirely. Here there's a plot, not a particularly deep one, but a plot nonetheless that has a definable storyline to it. We know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. We know what they're up to and while there isn't exactly anything like character development, the film is only twelve minutes long.

That static camera also takes us right into the action: mounted inside a train car, at the side of a path where horses ride past, even on top of a moving train. We get stunts: a man gets knocked out right next to a strongbox that gets blown open; another man gets knocked off the top of a moving train. It's shot on a grand scale with a huge and varied cast. More than anything else, we get an outlaw at the very end pointing his weapon at the camera and with eyes focused right on ours, empties his six gun right at us. To us, that's nothing; but in 1903 that was truly scary stuff.

Uncredited director Edwin S Porter has something of a unique filmography. He directed 168 films, something of a huge number, but his last was made in 1915 before most classic directors had even started. His early beginnings had to do with him being hired as a projectionist by Thomas Edison, who left the real development of cinema as a medium to his employees. Because of this quirk of circumstance, Porter can safely lay claim to being one of the most important men to step behind a camera and one of the most influential men in the business.

One quick side note: the little boy who discovers and frees the stationmaster, who can then alert the authorities, was eight year Donald Gallaher. He acted a little later on and I've seen him without knowing it in later films, and he even directed five early talkies. However the credit I know him from best is from one of my favourite terrible thirties movies: he wrote the source play for Sh! The Octopus!

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