The Great Train Robbery (1903) A Silent Film Review

One of the earliest blockbusters, this film is a legend in the history of cinema. But how does it hold up (no pun intended) for the modern viewer? The story involves the execution of a daring train robbery and the subsequent posse pursuit. Exciting stuff or a creaky relic?

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Bang, bang!

Another day, another acclaimed classic.

It’s often cited as the film that made the spawned the movie culture. It’s also called the first blockbuster, the first movie, the first narrative film… In spite of its popularity, or perhaps because of it, The Great Train Robbery has a lot of misconceptions associated with it.

Famous does not equal first.
Famous does not equal first.

Since the film is rather short and the plot is not terribly involved, I thought this would be a good place for a question and answer session. I plan to debunk a few myths that have attached themselves to the film, as well as give a bit of background on the making of the movie itself. Ready? Let’s go!

I heard this is the first silent movie or the first movie with a plot. Is this true?

This isn’t the first silent film. Or the first silent narrative film. As TCM put it, The Great Train Robbery “became the first influential narrative film in which the editing was imaginative and contributed to the narrative.”

So pretty much NOT the first anything.
So pretty much NOT the first anything.

Not quite as snappy as The First Silent Movie but we take what we can get.

What is the movie about?

This is an action western. It wastes no time on frivolity and quickly gets down to business. A gang of robbers overpower a railway station clerk, sneak aboard a passenger train and then proceed to strip it of valuables. They blow up the safe (with a pink and orange hand-colored explosion) and then rob every last passenger. The gang gets clean away but a posse soon pursues them to mete out Western justice.

Kaboom!
Kaboom!

Or is it New Jersey justice? The Great Train Robbery was an east coast creation (like most American films at the time) and was shot in Milltown, New Jersey.

Is the movie based on real events or a fictional work?

Tearing stories from the headlines is not a new invention.
Tearing stories from the headlines is not a new invention.

It was mildly based on an 1896 melodrama of the same title by Scott Marble, though the story was streamlined considerably for the movies. (It has also been suggested that the film was inspired by a 1900 train robbery commited by Butch Cassidy– yes, that Butch Cassidy– which is possible considering the amount of attention Butch and his gang received from the press.)

Are there any recognizable stars in the film?

As was the custom at the time, no actors were given onscreen credit. G.M. Anderson played several extra roles in the film, most significantly as the train passenger who tries to flee and gets plugged for his troubles. A few years later, he would adopt the persona of Broncho Billy and prevent these sort of villainous happenings.

They shot Broncho Billy!
They shot Broncho Billy!

The leader of the bandits (and the fellow who famously shoots directly into the camera) was Justus D. Barnes. What an ideal name for a western actor! He acted prolifically until 1917.

Will a modern audience like this movie?

At this point in time, we are used to rooting for thieves, bandits and ne’er-do-wells of all stripes. The Great Train Robbery does not invite the audience to sympathize with its villains. The movie was meant to shock and horrify by showing realistic western violence.

We tend to forget that in 1903, the western setting was not a time period but a place. This wasn’t history. It was torn from the headlines.

Attaaaaaack!
Attaaaaaack!

In general, though, modern viewers should have no trouble with the story. Its narrative is clear (note the lack of intertitles!) and director Edwin S. Porter keeps things fast-paced. Further, the outdoor shots and decidedly un-glamorous cast gives the movie a documentary feel. There are some studio scenes (with matte shots adding visual interest) but much of the movie takes place in the great outdoors.

Broncho Billy again.
Broncho Billy again.

That being said, viewers who are used to more rapid editing and closeups may find this older style of filmmaking difficult to get used to. I recommend starting an absolute newcomer out on something from Melies.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★

What about those scenes with color?

The color was added by hand to individual frames. It was not a precise art but the shimmering tints are quite charming and add considerably to the film.

Where can I see it?

The Great Train Robbery is widely available on DVD and via streaming. High quality versions are also available in numerous box sets. My copy is from The Movies Begin box set.

2 Replies to “The Great Train Robbery (1903) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Good analysis, Fritzi. I first saw it on a television program when I was very young. I had already started reading about silent movies and this helped to hook me.

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