The Great Train Robbery (1903)

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

By 1900, filmmaking had advanced beyond just technical demonstrations as producers tried to capitalise on the commercial opportunities afforded by storytelling.

In 1903, Edwin S. Porter made The Great Train Robbery for the Edison Manufacturing Company, which quickly became a commercial success. While often mistakenly declared the first narrative film, it was still a pioneer of the time, combining advanced filming techniques and storytelling.

With a linear timeline, the film has 14 scenes which depict a gang of robbers holding up a train and relieving both it, and the passengers, of anything valuable.

As if to complement the non-stop action of each scene, the camera also pans across the landscape to extend the scene. While perhaps not noticeable for a modern audience, this was a technique that was still in its infancy as contemporary filmmakers were primarily using fixed cameras.

The Great Train Robbery's focus on action not only contrasted with the sci-fi fantasy elements of the era's other popular filmmaker, Georges Méliès, but it was also shot on location, unlike many of Méliès' films, which were essentially elaborate stage plays.

The commercial success of The Great Train Robbery proved the viability of one-reel (~12 minute) films, paving the way for longer and longer films throughout the start of the 20th Century.

The film's closing scene (or opening scene, as it was sometimes shown) is an early close-up that has become iconic in American culture and has been paid homage in numerous films since. It potentially even influenced the gun barrel sequence in the James Bond films (which also appears at both the beginning or end).

You can watch The Great Train Robbery in full below:

If you're here because of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge 2021, please stop by the theme reveal page which has a full list of all films used in the challenge.


  1. Such a famous film, Martin Scorsese talks about it a lot and the influence it has. Nice post.


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