Life of an American Fireman (1903) Review


Life of an American Fireman (1903) Director: Edwin Stanton Porter


It is difficult to look upon these early cinematic gems with a critical eye, but after watching the short films of George Méliès, many other films seem to pale in comparison. Nevertheless, The Life of an American Fireman is a wonderful little narrative. In particular, I was particularly struck by the language developed here as we cut between different spaces in compressed time –a remarkable feat of editing! This is a simple film, but also an essential for cinephiles.

The Life of An American Fireman represents the growth of early silent cinema, it marks the birth of American narrative film-making. We meet an American fireman who envisions a woman in peril. Together, he and his fellow firemen race to her house where they stage a rescue operation. This was one of the first films to employ editing techniques like cross-cutting –quite an amazing feat if you consider the complexity of devising two inter-spliced narratives within the same contemporaneous time sequence. The Life of An American Fireman was a smash success upon its release, both domestically and abroad, thanks to funding from the Edison Manufacturing Company. Edwin Porter’s other more famous film of the era was The Great Train Robbery which was also released in 1903 to widespread shock and popularity. Porter was the son of a Pennsylvania merchant who nearly lost all his wealth in the Panic of 1893. Porter eventually worked for the Edison company as an inventor and director. He died in 1941. Today, he is remembered as something of an enigmatic man, never repeating his directorial signatures, and preferring to stay mostly behind the scenes. It was said that he preferred to work with machines rather than with people but his impact on movie-making has been indelible.

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