1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die: The Great Train Robbery (1903)

(Thank you again YouTube for having the full film up for free, particular props to ACM TV’s channel)

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They say this one is the ‘first Western’. A genre that would evolve into one of film history’s most prolific eras, and many say it began right here with these 12 minutes of silence (literally, there’s not even a musical accompaniment), directed by Edwin S. Porter.

It’s interesting watching this one in this day and age, where the market can barely move for relentless action extravaganzas and sprawling adventure stories on the silver screen, and yet ‘The Great Train Robbery’ has an undeniable staying power. It’s immediately apparent why this work has stood the test of time and makes it onto all these lists of ‘however many films you have to see in your lifetime’. Again, the premise is simplistic; a gang of robbers enact a plan to rob a steam train, and whilst their heist is pulled off successfully it isn’t long before swift and merciless justice is exacted upon them. It’s the definitively old-school bad guys vs. good guys, offering shootouts, hostage-taking, horseback chase sequences, in essence creating a recipe of quintessential ingredients for what was to come throughout subsequent decades of the genre.

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How it must have felt to be in the crowd in 1903 when The Edison Company first unveiled this project, being among the first in history to experience this kind of visual drama and suspense, gasping with horror at the gunning down of innocents by the nefarious robbers, cheering on the posse of citizens as they chase down the bandits and applauding as the criminals are defeated in a climactic shootout. As much as the genre and cinema in general may have gone on to bigger and better things, and since provided evermore-spectacular storytelling experiences, there remains a certain thrill at seeing the seed of what was to come being planted. And let’s not forget that iconic closing shot, arguably one of the first fourth-wall breaks in film history as Justus D. Barnes, in the role of the bandit leader, glowers directly at the camera and proceeds to fire his six-shooter revolver at the viewer. That’s a conceptual ancestor to 3D right there, the idea of a film not just as a performance piece but also as an immersive experience for audiences, however momentary (some historians even credit it as inspiring the iconic gun-barrel opening of the James Bond franchise). Small wonder then that the film went on to enjoy runaway success, and is also considered now one of the first ever ‘blockbusters’.

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They say as one door closes, another must open, and whilst the American Frontier may have begun to wane in these times, films like ‘The Great Train Robbery’ proved that an entirely new and different frontier was only just opening and waiting to be explored.

Quality Score – 4/5

Entertainment Score – 4/5

Final Score – 4/5

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