BOOTLEG FILES 268 “The Great Train Robbery” (1903 landmark short film.
LAST SEEN: The film can be found online.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In public domain dupes only.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A long-expired copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Anyone who can get their hands on a print can make it available.
When I decided to devote this week’s column to the 1903 landmark film”The Great Train Robbery,” something odd occurred to me. Although I’ve been reading about the film for as long as I can remember, and while I’ve seen bits and pieces of the film in various documentaries on movie history, I never actually sat down and watched the entire 12-minute production from start to finish. I imagine many people have the same experience: they’ve heard of the film, but they never actually saw it.
But many people may have received the wrong information about the film. For a long time, “The Great Train Robbery” has been erroneously identified as the first narrative film. That’s not the case – other films got there first – but it was the first U.S. narrative film that resonated with American audiences. Prior to its release, no single film truly hit a nerve with audiences. Films were strictly seen as diverting but disposable entertainment – if you saw one film, you saw them all. But “The Great Train Robbery” was the one that clicked.
From a contemporary standpoint, however, “The Great Train Robbery” is curious to behold. Its visual style is typical of the stagnant filmmaking technique of the day, with the sole exception of the surprise shot at the film’s end (we’ll get to that shortly). In watching “The Great Train Robbery,” it is easy to wonder why this particular production was the one that audiences responded to with such fervor – any appeal it has today is mostly historical and not artistic.
The film is basically a series of 14 sequences, each filmed in long shot by a stationary camera. In many of the excessively duped prints in circulation today, it is difficult to actually see the actors’ faces because Porter put his camera so far from the cast.
The film opens inside a railroad telegraph office in the Wild West. Two bandits force the telegraph operator to set the signal block that will halt an oncoming train. They also force the operator to write a note that the engineer picks up. The bandits then knock out the operator and tie him up.
The next scene is the railroad water tank, where the train is taking on more water. The two bandits, joined by additional comrades, sneak aboard the train. After that, the clerk in the train’s mail car hears the bandits coming and locks up the train’s cash shipment in a strong box. A gunfight ensues and the clerk is killed. The bandits use dynamite to blow up the strong box.
Following that, there is a fight on top of the tender of the train. One of the bandits throws an engineer (obviously a mannequin) from the moving vehicle. In the next scene, the train is halted and the surviving engineer uncouples the engine from the train. The sequence after that finds the bandits forcing all of the passengers from the train. One man tries to escape and is gunned down. The bandits fleece the passengers of their belongings and flee.
The bandits then return to the engine and force the engineer to take them down the tracks. After they reach a certain point on the tracks, the bandits stop the train and make their escape into the woods.
Meanwhile, back at the telegraph office, the operator’s daughter finds her father tied up. She frees him and he hurries to a nearby dance hall, where a group of men and women are whooping it up. The operator bursts into the middle of the dance and tells everyone about the robbery. The men run out of the dance hall.
The next two scenes finds the posse in pursuit of the bandits. A horseback chases finds one of the bandits fatally falling from his horse. The remaining bandits are surrounded in the woods and shot to death.
And then comes that famous, groundbreaking scene – which actually has nothing to do with the film. The bandit leader, framed in close-up, stares with unblinking malice directly into the camera, pulls his revolver, and fires at point blank range at the viewer. The end!
“The Great Train Robbery” was produced by Thomas Edison’s film company, although Edison himself had nothing to do with the actual production. The exterior shots used the wilds of New Jersey as a substitute for the Wild West – in 1903, New Jersey was the filmmaking capital of America. To enhance the film, some prints were hand-colored. Bursts of orange to illustrate the various blasts of gunpowder, while one of the women in the dance hall scene was given a yellow hue for her long dress. A few prints gave full color to the scowling bandit who shoots the camera.
“The Great Train Robbery” was the original word-of-mouth movie sensation. The movie had its premiere in September 1903 at Huber’s Museum, a crummy vaudeville theater in New York City. At the time, there were no theaters devoted exclusively to movies – vaudeville houses mixed live stage shows with short films. Actor Gilbert M. Anderson, who was among the uncredited actors in the film, would later recall that the audience at the first screening was caught off guard by the film. “They got up and shouted and yelled, and then when it was all over they yelled, ‘Run it again! Run it again!’, until the management finally put on the lights to chase them out,” he stated.
Much of the appeal in “The Great Train Robbery” was the unusual final scene, when the bandit (actor Justus Barnes) shoots the camera in a close-up. Reportedly, audiences of that era would scream when the gun was fired, only to laugh afterwards when they realized it was just a trick. Oddly, the Edison company enabled theaters to decide whether they wanted to have that shot at the beginning or end of the film.
Within a week of its Huber’s Museum debut, “The Great Train Robbery” graduated to the high class Hammerstein’s Theatre at 42nd Street and Broadway. By the end of 1903, it was playing at every major theater across the country. The film remained in circulation for years, and the trade magazine Moving Picture World estimated that it grossed $2 million by 1908.
“The Great Train Robbery” created such a sensation that it was the source of one of the most elaborate bootleg schemes in movie history: the film was virtually remade in a shot-by-shot quickie production that was promoted as the genuine item. The real film was also heavily duped, which was par for the course in the early days of the silent movies.
Over the years, “The Great Train Robbery” has been heavily bootlegged. As a public domain title, it has been the subject of endless duping – which is a shame, since the original negative still exists and is reported in excellent condition, thus enabling decent prints to be made. However, the bootlegging has resulted in the proliferation of prints that range from fair to poor. At this stage, it is impossible to imagine what the film actually looked like when it was first screened back in 1903.
For any student of movie history, the 12 minutes of “The Great Train Robbery” is required viewing – if only to understand where the American mania for movies actually sprang from.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!