The Rear-View Mirror: The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

It’s easy to miss, but Edwin S. Porter’s short movie The Great Train Robbery from 1903 combines some original movie-making features as well as some first-time ideas for a rather young art form that are still in use today. It starts, innocently enough, with a title card, then a first stage set, where a station agent is bound and gagged by two robbers. There is a lot of overacting because there are no other title cards for the rest of the movie, so gestures and movement must express the characters’ inner lives. There isn’t even a cast list.

But already there, in that ticket office, is the moment when a train passes by the window on the right, so we might look at a set built next to a real railway line. Méliès only ever shot his movies on his sound stage, but I disagree with certain movie buffs who say that Porter’s short is the first to tell a real story, because so was Méliès already before the turn of the century.

No matter; both filmmakers have their linear storytelling in common, but then Porter places the camera on top of a moving train, something that Méliès did not do. The eye of the camera is not yet looking around, it’s simply riding along with the steam train while the clerk and the robbers fight each other. And then, at about 7:20, the camera really starts panning, following the robbers into the woods. The static of just watching is broken up by following the characters with our eyes by way of the lens.

Porter might have introduced some technical novelties, a great moral revolutionary he was certainly not: the robbers get caught by a local posse and shot dead in the woods. Justice is served and all that. But tell me: we might storm the beaches at Dunkirk, we might be there when the Millenium Falcon gets through another dogfight, we might even survive Thanos’ supersnap – we might be confronted with outrageous sensory overload, but were you not a little afraid when, at the very end of The Great Train Robbery, the last robber points his gun at you and shoots at you? Just a tiny little bit? In 1903, more than just a few audience members thought they might not get out of there alive.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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