The Great Train Robbery (1903) Director: Edwin Stanton Porter
Trains, guns, cowboys, villains, and a high-octane heist –early cinema still manages to thrill! The Great Train Robbery is a foundational triumph in the history of American film-making. In particular, I was struck by the film’s closing scene which directly confronts the audience with a point-blank gunshot. This scene has since become famous the world over, having been a shock to audiences in its heyday. It has been alluded to in many other films including Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007).
The Great Train Robbery is the first great American Western film. It was filmed in New Jersey, where many early films were shot before the rise of Hollywood. Two bandits rob a train while it is docked in a station, and they bind the station operator. They board the train, kill the officials, and file all the passengers onto a platform while ransacking their belongings. One person tries to escape but is then gunned down. The bandits escape with their loot on horseback. Lawlessness rules the day in this film. Later, the operator gathers men from a dance hall to chase down the bandits and kill them, and this is followed by the famous closing scene as Justus D. Barnes fires his gun at the audience as if to say, “I’m coming for you next.” According to legend, many audience members fled in terror upon its first screening. Unsurprisingly, The Great Train Robbery was the most popular film of the silent era prior to the release of D.W. Griffith’s controversial mega blockbuster, Birth of a Nation in 1915.