Life of an American Fireman
|Life of an American Fireman|
Opening scene from the film.
|Directed by||Edwin S. Porter|
|Distributed by||Edison Manufacturing Company|
|Release dates||January 1903|
Life of an American Fireman is a short, silent film Edwin S. Porter made for the Edison Manufacturing Company. It was shot late in 1902 and distributed early in 1903. One of the earliest American narrative films, it depicts the rescue of a woman and child from a burning building. It bears notable similarities, suggesting influence, to Fire!, made by James Williamson in Hove, England in October 1901.
Life of an American Fireman is notable for its synthesis of numerous innovations in film technique that had occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically, Porter builds a continuous narrative over seven scenes, rendered in a total of nine shots:
- The Fireman's Vision of an Imperilled [sic] Woman and Child.
- A Close View of a New York Fire Alarm Box.
- The Interior of the Sleeping Quarters in the Fire House.
- Interior of the Engine House.
- The Apparatus Leaving the Engine House.
- Off to the Fire.
- The Arrival at the Fire.
This particular construction of time and space was not invented by Porter, but he did maximize its use and further develop it in his more famous film of 1903, The Great Train Robbery.
Charles Musser, a film scholar, points out that this film represents the social role of firefighters was changing at the time.
The film was long considered important for its unusual editing style, being considered the earliest example of cross-cutting, notably during the final scenes of the rescue of the woman and her child. On the basis of this, Porter was hailed as an innovative editor. However, subsequent research by the paper print project at the Library of Congress suggested that the cross-cut version was re-edited at some unspecified time after the film's 1903 release, and that in its original form it used few, if any, of the pioneering edits claimed. As originally released, the interior point of view of the burning house is shown first and completed. Then the exact same action repeating itself is shown again from the exterior. Charles Musser has chronicled the history of this controversy in Before the Nickelodeon and concluded that the paper-print version containing the repetitive action was the one released in 1903.
- Originally in Edison Films catalog, February 1903, 2-3; reproduced in Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 216-18.
- Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, 230-33.