The Great Train Robbery

It’s not very often that we celebrate the 110th anniversary of a film.  When The Great Train Robbery debuted in December of 1903, Henry Ford had recently sold his first car, the Boston Americans had just won the first modern World Series, and Theodore Roosevelt was president of the United States.  Filmmaking was in its infancy.

In the late 1800s most moving images were novel, one-scene clips.  Machines such as the zoopraxiscope and kinetoscope would show a series of moving images like a horse running or a woman dancing.  As technology progressed, more complex pictures such as boxing matches or short news segments were projected onto a screen.  Even still, these films were more of a novelty than anything else.

Moving images changed in 1903 with the debut of The Great Train Robbery.  Produced by Thomas Edison, inventor of many audio and visual playback machines, the film began to shift the focus from novelty films to plot-based cinema.

The Great Train Robbery was one of the first crime dramas and archetype of the western genre.  The film introduced moviegoers to robberies, chase scenes, and gun shoot-offs.  The film was also one of the first to incorporate a full cast of actors and to shoot on-location.

New techniques in film editing also helped to establish The Great Train Robbery as a pioneer in plot-based film.  Director Edwin S. Porter used cross-cutting to show that two events were occurring simultaneously.  This is apparent when Porter shifts back and forth between the tied up telegraph operator and the bandits on the train.  Porter also uses panning shots, where the camera follows the characters, to focus viewers’ attention.  These simple techniques help to establish continuity between scenes and increase suspense for the viewer.

The final scene of the film. Justus D. Barnes, leader of the outlaw band, fires his pistol directly at the audience.

Most of the films preserved at the National Archives were produced by government agencies.  Yet The Great Train Robbery was produced by the Edison Company.  This raises the question, how did it get here?

In addition to government films, NARA also receives private donations of historical value.  One such donation was the Ford Historical Film Collection.  Henry Ford believed that motion pictures held great educational and advertising value.  As such, he established the Ford Motion Picture department in 1914 and filmed a variety of topics.  Early films in the collection focused on current events and educational features like the Ford Animated Weekly.  By the 1920s, Ford began to shift the focus toward promoting infrastructure, improving farming, and increasing safety.

Yet the astute blog reader may still be saying, Henry Ford didn’t produce the Great Train Robbery!  This is also true.  The Ford Collection is divided into four parts: News and Education, Ford Family, Ford Motor Company, and Film from Other Sources.  The Great Train Robbery falls under the last category, along with other Edison films.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison (306-NT-279 T-6)

In addition to NARA, The Great Train Robbery is also preserved at the Library of Congress in the Paper Print Film Collection.  Prior to 1912, the medium of film was was still new and consequently not subject to copyright laws.  Still eager to protect their work, clever producers like Thomas Edison took still photos of each scene and filed their films as a set of photographs.  Interestingly enough, these “paper prints” survived much better than film from the same time period and now represent the best collection of the early moving images.

Check back soon for other early films and more videos from the Ford Collection.

5 thoughts on “The Great Train Robbery

    1. Hi, Tim! Thanks for your comment! In the sense that this film is the version that was distributed by Ford in the 1910s and 1920s and reflects what those audiences would have seen, the film is not out of order. And since this is the record copy, as NARA acquired it from Ford, we won’t alter it. There’s actually another copy of this film in the Ford Collection—I’ll have to see if it’s different. Thanks again for your comment!

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