The Great Train Robbery (1903)

*. What’s so “Great” about it? Why not just call it The Train Robbery?
*. Because it was only 1903 but the movies were already into the big sell. It wasn’t enough that you were looking at moving pictures. You had to be seeing something really special.
*. It’s sometimes said that the Western was America’s only native dramatic genre. The movies certainly weren’t American, at least in the early days, but they would be. It seems a good fit then that, in terms of narrative film, this is how it all began.
*. There’s a hell of a lot of plot for ten and a half minutes, isn’t there? You could make a feature out of as much today.
*. I don’t much mind the fact that the body thrown from the train is obviously a dummy, or that the dead guard can’t keep still. These are rookie mistakes. But why are the robbers so worried about getting their feet wet in that shallow stream? One of them slips and falls into it and the water barely rises above his ankles.
*. What did movie audiences want to see? Violence. People getting killed. People dying, in dramatic fashion. Just look at the poor engineer’s assistant getting his face beaten in with a rock! And don’t laugh at the conventions that had them expiring in such eloquently physical ways. Those gestures, in particular the dramatic reaching for the sky, were all they had before exploding packets of blood and CGI. Or sound.
*. Back projection was probably the key technical development here, and I think it works quite well even if the images don’t always seem to line up properly. The pans are also effective, demonstrating one of the ways you had to tell a story on film before a real grammar of editing had been formulated. The camera carries us along, for example, through the woods, across the stream, onto the horses. It’s a seamless narrative flow.
*. Filmmakers just love trains, don’t they? It’s like the tracks are a strip of film and the movie is a fairground ride.
*. An ending, or a beginning? Porter apparently didn’t care whether the cowboy shooting at the camera played before or after the little narrative that it has no real relation to. I think it’s better at the end (where it’s always put), even if it does seem enigmatic.
*. The cowboy at the end is Justus D. Barnes, who also plays the leader of the outlaws. Are we not meant to recognize him? Scorsese was right to resurrect Joe Pesci at the end of Goodfellas as an act of homage, as it has the same effect. Is he really dead, or was it all just a movie?
*. I get a bit of a kick out of the hand-coloured prints, but this was a dead end, an arts-and-crafts carryover into the industrial age that doesn’t quite fit. But also, it isn’t very good. There are other hand-coloured prints from this era that look much better. This was a rough job.

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