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.

The Great Train Robbery (1903) Review


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 pioneering. In particular, the film’s closing scene directly confronts the audience as a point-blank gunshot is fired into the faces of the audience. This scene became 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.