Saturday, January 5, 2013

Why you should see The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Dear future cinephile,

You should really see The Great Train Robbery. It is, according to IMDB, the first American narrative film, that is to say, the first example of narrative storytelling in American Cinema. If not the first, then it is certainly one of the earliest examples.

The plot is fairly simple - a group of bandits go to quite some effort to hold up a train and rob all the passengers. The station manager they tie up and knock out at the start is awoken by his precious little daughter, alerts the town folk at a barn dance, and they all jump on their horses, track the bandits into the forest and, well, there's a shoot out. You can see for yourself who wins. Frankly I'm not 100% sure.

Far more interesting is what it means for cinema in terms of style and content. It certainly marks the Western (or arguably crime thriller) as America's oldest cinema genre. At just twelve minutes long, it contains violence, dancing, religion, retribution and, probably unintentionally, an ambiguous ending.

It's almost surprisingly violent considering its turn of the century audience - the bandits never hesitating to off anyone who gets in their way, whether by shooting a fleeing passenger in the back or beating a train engineer to death with a rock.

Cinematically, it obviously takes its visual storytelling queues from the only point of reference it likely had - the stage. Consequently, it is made up of 14 separate scene set ups with nigh on zero camera movement (give or take a camera pan or two).

It does, however, diverge from the limits of theatre on two accounts which, viewed rightfully as the birth of the unique magic and possibility of cinema, are thrilling in their simplicity:

1. Visual trickery through continuity editing:
Obviously the film uses editing to string together its 14 scene set ups into a single, multi location narrative, but far more exciting is the use of editing to trick us into seeing a train engineer (that what Wikipedia calls him in the plot synopsis. I don't know what an engineer is doing shoveling coal, but I don't know anything about trains either) wrestled to the ground by a bandit, beaten to death by a rock and thrown off the train. It's an alarming moment, even today, and all thanks to a frankly clumsy, but effective, bit of editing that ties together a shot of the bandit actor wrestling down the train engineer actor and a shot of the bandit actor beating an engineer-resembling puppet with a rock and chucking it off the train. It's a simple trick, but it's cinema magic at it's best - a startling moment uniquely executable on screen.  

2. The dramatic close up
In keeping with its theatre roots, the entire film is shot in long shots; all the action happening within the confines of the (mostly) stagnant scene set ups. The film only deviates from long shots in its iconic, poetic, oft homaged final shot: a close up of a bandit slowly drawing his gun and firing straight at the screen. It's probably the films most powerful moment, although it creates some narrative ambiguity. Director Edwin S Porter presumably also made use of superimposition to achieve the shot, displaying yet another case of thrilling cinematic trickery. He is also on record as saying that the shot could just as easily have been the film's opening shot, emphasising its significance as a dramatic, rather than narrative device.

All in all, a big Hear! Hear! for a significant chapter in cinema's formative years.

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