Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

The Great Train Robbery (1903) ★★★★★ 5/5

13 minu
tes is all it takes to see this one. And yes, you should see it. This short movie is worthy of 5 stars for several reasons. Made over 100 years ago, the film makers and actors from Edison Studios revolutionized movie making. An entire live action story was brought to the big screen and clearly conveyed a solid story with no dialogue or sound.

The story of The Great Train Robbery was simple enough. A group of men break into a train depot and hold up the operator, forcing him to stop the train so it can refill with water to operate the steam locomotive. In the background the train rolls up and the men sneak out of the building and work their way onto the train. Once aboard what seems to be a mail car, the robbers are involved in a shootout. The man managing the mail is shot and killed in the fight. Before he is killed, he makes sure to lock a box holding money and throws away the key. When the robbers can not find the key, they use dynamite to explode the box and claim the money.

Next they climb atop the moving train. There, they murder another train attendant and throw his body off the train. While the body they throw over is clearly a dummy, the editing process is extremely well done for the time period. At some point they had to cut the film to interchange the live actor with the dummy and it is a smooth transition. After overtaking the rear of the train, the robbers get into the engine and claim the train, bringing it to a stop. Meanwhile, a handful of robbers clear out the passenger cars and empty them from the train by gunpoint. One brave passenger tries to flee but is shot dead and made an example. The robbers make their way through the crowd stealing watches, jewelry and wallets. Once they have collected everything, they disconnect the engine from the other cars, hop aboard and ride off. This scene is clearly an inspiration to the train robbery scene in The Wild Bunch (1969).

Once the train has traveled far enough away, the robbers mount horses and ride off into the forest. At the same time, the station worker who was previously tied up has escaped and informs some people having a party that there has been a robbery. These men leave the party and chase down the robbers. When they find them in the forest there is a gunfight on horseback. Again, the filming of this is excellent for it's time. The camera work is sturdy and well focused. Eventually, the robbers are shot down and the stolen goods are recovered.

The final scene (in some cases the first scene depending on how the movie was played) ends with a very famous shot of a gunfighter taking aim at the camera and shooting. This scene is used in the opening of the film Tombstone (1993).

Another interesting piece to this film is the use of color. While color does not become standard in film until later in the century, The Great Train Robbery implements small bits of color. There is a small child cloaked in red who rescues the tied up station operator. Was this girl in red inspiration for the color in Schindler's List (1993)? There are flashes of color when dynamite and gunfire are involved in the film. The joyous dance scene shows women in colored gowns, and pennants of red and green hang from the rafters. This color is actually all hand painted on the movie sills and is a quite fascinating implementation of color.

The acting is basically very smooth. It is natural and not overdone as one often associates acting to be in silent films. This is with the exception of the shootings though. Shootings in this film are over dramatic and highly exaggerated. But other then that, the on goings in the film are not drawn out and believable. The technical aspects of this film are great. The live action and the staging of the movement of inanimate objects such as the train are timed perfectly. The use of color in the film is interesting as well. Take the 13 minutes and see it for these reasons alone. Link

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