‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903) – Short Film Review

The second movie I watched as part of my ‘watching everything featured in The Great Movie Ride‘ project was The Great Train Robbery (1903), another short, silent film, though this was has the distinction of being the first narrative film.

The Great Train Robbery, while still short, is much longer than the first film I watched, as The Kiss (1896) is only 18 seconds long, and this one is 12 minutes. Also, like The Kiss, The Great Train Robbery has an Edison connection as the film was produced for the Edison Manufacturing Company. The film, made by Edwin S. Porter, serves as an onscreen retelling of The Great Train Robbery play from 1896 by playwright Scott Marble.

The Great Train Robbery
Credit: Library of Congress

Actors in the film include Justus D. Barnes, a vaudeville performer most known in The Great Train Robbery for the final shot showing him shooting a gun directly at the camera, and G.M. Anderson, who in additon to acting was a writer, director, and producer, and is known for being the first major star in the Western genre.

The short’s plot is really spelled out in the title, but despite such a simple storyline, I found The Great Train Robbery fun to watch. The action kicks off almost immediately with two bandits holding up a telegraph office nearby the railroad station, so for a style of film that I would expect to move slower, this one immediately captured my interest.

The Great Train Robbery
Credit: Library of Congress

From there, the story goes on to go through the motions of the robbery, with several incredible shots especially for the time period when you consider all of the moving pieces of showcasing a plot with a moving train and even probably hundreds of extras as the robbers hold up the train and passengers are evacuated.

From what I’ve read, the most memorable moment of the film for many is the final scene when Barnes aims the gun directly at the camera. Of course, this is tame for the kind of thing you would see in an action movie today, but I thought it was a great choice for ending this film stylistically, and I can see why audiences in the early 20th century would be really captivated by such a moment on screen.

I really enjoyed The Great Train Robbery much more than I thought I would going into it, and I can definitely see why this one was chosen to be included in The Great Movie Ride.

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