The Great Train Robbery
Frame enlargement: Silent Era image collection.
Also known as The Great American Train Robbery in Australia
B&W : One reel / 740 feet
Directed by Edwin S. Porter
Cast: George Barnes [an outlaw], Frank Hanaway, Max Aaronson (Gilbert M. Anderson) [the trainside shooting victim; and the reluctant dancing dude], Alfred C. Abadie, Marie Murray
Edison Manufacturing Company production; distributed by Edison Manufacturing Company and Kleine Optical Company. / Scenario by Edwin S. Porter. Cinematography by Edwin S. Porter and Blair Smith. / © 1 December 1903 by Thomas A. Edison [H38748]. Released December 1903. / Standard 35mm spherical 1.37:1 format. / The production was shot on-location in New Jersey and at the Edison studios in New York, New York. Some prints originally had scenes with hand-tinted gunfire. The close-up of Barnes shooting pistol at the camera was separate from the rest of the narrative and was intended to be shown either at the beginning or end of the film. This western is generally regarded as the first action narrative to utilize parallel cutting editing techniques to propel the story forward and create dramatic tension.
Synopsis: [From Edison promotional materials] Scene I. Interior of railroad telegraph office. Two masked robbers enter and compel the operator to set 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 stand-still; 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. Scene II. Railroad water tank. 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. Scene III. 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. Scene IV. This thrilling scene shows the tender and interior of the locomotive cab, while 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 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. Scene V. Shows the train coming to a stop. The engineer leaves the locomotive, uncouples it from the train, and pulls ahead about one hundred feet, while the robbers hold their pistols to his face. Scene VI. 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. Scene VII. The desperadoes board the locomotive with their booty, compel the engineer to start, and disappear in the distance. Scene VIII. The robbers bring the engine to a stop several miles from the scene of the “Hold Up,” and take to the mountains. Scene IX. A beautiful scene in a valley. The bandits come down the side of a hill, cross a narrow stream, mounting their horses, and make for the wilderness. Scene X. 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 ropes, throws a glass of water in his face and restores him to consciousness, and, recalling his thrilling experience, he rushes out to give the alarm. Scene XI. 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 the 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. Scene XII. 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. Scene XIII. The three remaining bandits, thinking they have eluded the pursuers, have dismounted from their horses, and after carefully surveying the 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 several of the posse bite the dust. Scene XIV. A life size 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.
Survival status: Prints exist in the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House film archive [35mm positive]; in the Library of Congress film archive (paper print collection) [35mm paper positive]; also in private film collections [16mm reduction positives].
Current rights holder: Public domain.
Keywords: Chases - Crime: Robbery, Shootings - Fights: Gunfights - Railroads: Railroad engines, Railroad tracks - Transportation: Trains - Train tracks - USA: New Jersey - Weapons: Guns
Listing updated: 11 January 2015.
References: Film viewing : Altman-Sound pp. 20, 102; Bardèche-History pp. 30-31, 39, 50a, 66, 68, 314, 369; Barry-Griffith pp. 8, 12, 26; Blum-Silent pp. 8, 9; Bogdanovich-Dwan p. 6; Bohn-Light pp. xvii, 17, 18-19, 23, 49, 74, 194; Brownlow-Parade p. 10; Card-Seductive pp. 8, 62; Carroll-Matinee pp. 18, 107, 109; Cary-Hollywood pp. 9, 18; Cooper-Dark p. 98; Dardis-Keaton p. 28; Dowd-Vidor p. 258; Edmonds-BigU p. 19; Everson-American pp. 36-37, 86b, 238, 239, 240, 241, 368; Everson-Detective p. 5; Fell-History pp. 24, 39, 47, 48-49, 51, 61, 90, 106; Geduld-Birth pp. 36, 107; Jacobs-Chaplin p. 21; Kerr-Silent pp. 8, 18, 22, 26, 50; Koszarski-Hart p. ix; Lahue-Collecting pp. 18, 32, 46, 49; Lahue-Kops p. 10; Lahue-Selig p. 12; Leish-Cinema pp. 17, 28; Leyda-Before pp. 40, 112; Maltin-Selected p. 1; McCaffrey-Guide pp. 3, 14a; Mottram-Danish p. 13; Musser-Before pp. 1, 2, 3; Niver-Early p. 126; Niver-First pp. 22, 42; Perry-British pp. 26-27; Pitts-Hollywood p. 3; Robinson-Palace pp. 80-82, 89, 121, 125; Shipman-Cinema pp. 28, 30, 32; Shirley-Australian pp. 16, 28; Sinyard-Silent pp. 15, 56; Sklar-Movie pp. 20, 24, 26, 27, 28, 29, 42, 51, 56, 145; Skretvedt-LaurelHardy p. 31; Slide-Early pp. 8, 17, 22; Sloan-Loud p. 23; Stedman-Serials p. 17; Tarbox-Lost pp. 33, 43-45; Whitfield-Pickford pp. 68, 69 : Website-AFI; Website-GEH.
Home video: DVD.