The Great Train Robbery (1903 film)

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The Great Train Robbery
The Great Train Robbery 0018.jpg
The bandits coming under fire while attempting to escape with the loot.
Directed by Edwin S. Porter
Produced by Edwin S. Porter
Written by Edwin S. Porter
Scott Marble
Starring Alfred C. Abadie
Broncho Billy Anderson
Justus D. Barnes
Walter Cameron
Cinematography Edwin S. Porter
Blair Smith
Edited by Edwin S. Porter
Distributed by Edison Manufacturing Company
Kleine Optical Company
Release dates
  • December 1, 1903 (1903-12-01)
Running time
Country United States
Language Silent
English intertitles
Budget $150[1]

The Great Train Robbery is a 1903 American silent short Western film written, produced, and directed by Edwin S. Porter. At ten minutes long, it is considered a milestone in film making, expanding on Porter's previous work Life of an American Fireman. The film used a number of innovative techniques including composite editing, camera movement and on location shooting. The film is one of the earliest to use the technique of cross cutting, in which two scenes appear to occur simultaneously but in different locations. Some prints were also hand colored in certain scenes. However, none of these techniques were original to The Great Train Robbery, and it is now considered that it was heavily influenced by Frank Mottershaw's earlier British film A Daring Daylight Burglary.[2] Some historians consider it to be the first action film.[3]

The Great Train Robbery was directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter, a former Edison Studios cameraman. Actors in the movie included Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson and Justus D. Barnes, although there were no credits. Though a Western, it was filmed in Milltown, New Jersey. In 1990, The Great Train Robbery was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


The film opens with two bandits breaking into a railroad telegraph office, where they force the operator at gunpoint to have a train stopped and to transmit orders for the engineer orders to fill the locomotive's tender at the station's water tank. They then knock operator out and tie him up. As the train stops it is boarded by the bandits—​now four. Two enter an express[clarification needed] car, kill a messenger and open a box of valuables with dynamite; the others kill the fireman and force the engineer to halt the train and disconnect the locomotive. The bandits then force the passengers off the train and rifle them for their belongings. One passenger tries to escape, but is instantly shot down. Carrying their loot, the bandits escape in the locomotive, later stopping in a valley to continue on horseback.

Back in the telegraph office, the operator awakens and tries to escape, but collapses again. His daughter enters and restores him to consciousness by dousing him with water.

Finally, at a nearby dance hall, there is some comic relief when a man is forced to dance while the bandits fire at his feet. The operator rushes into the dance hall with news of what has happened; the men grab their guns and set off in pursuit. This posse catches up with the bandits, and in a final shootout all of the bandits are killed.

Final shot[edit]

Justus D. Barnes. leader of the outlaw band, taking aim and firing point blank at the audience.

An additional scene of the film consists of a close up of the leader of the bandits, played by Justus D. Barnes, firing point blank towards the camera. While usually placed at the end, Porter stated that the scene could also be played at the beginning.


  • Alfred C. Abadie as Sheriff
  • Broncho Billy Anderson as Bandit / Shot Passenger / Tenderfoot Dancer
  • Justus D. Barnes as Bandit Who Fires At Camera
  • Walter Cameron as Sheriff
  • Donald Gallaher as Little boy
  • Frank Hanaway as Bandit
  • Adam Charles Hayman as Bandit
  • John Manus Dougherty, Sr. as Fourth bandit
  • Marie Murray as Dance-hall dancer
  • Mary Snow as Little girl
  • George Barnes (uncredited)[4]
  • Morgan Jones (uncredited)

Production notes[edit]

Porter's film was shot at the Edison studios in New York City, on location in New Jersey at the South Mountain Reservation, part of the modern Essex County Park system, as well as along the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. Filmed during November 1903, the picture was advertised as available for sale to distributors in December of that same year.[5]

Release and reception[edit]

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery had its official debut at Huber's Museum in New York City before being exhibited at eleven theaters elsewhere in the city.[6] In advertising for the film, Edison agents touted the film as "...absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made" as well as a "...faithful imitation of the genuine 'Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West..."[7]

The film's budget was an estimated $150.[1] Upon its release, The Great Train Robbery became a massive success and is considered one of the first Western films.[8] It is also considered one of the first blockbusters and was one of the most popular films of the silent era until the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Edwin S. Porter made a parody of The Great Train Robbery titled The Little Train Robbery (1905), with an all-child cast in which a larger gang of bandits holds up a mini train and steal their dolls and candy.[9]
  • In the 1966 Batman entitled "The Riddler's False Notion", silent film star Francis X. Bushman as the wealthy film collector who owns a print of The Great Train Robbery.[10]
  • The final shot is paid homage in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas when Joe Pesci's character fires a gun at the camera at the end of the movie.
  • Ridley Scott also paid homage after the final credits of American Gangster when Denzel Washington's character in a darkened bar fires a gun into the camera.
  • The .45 Long Colt shot clip appears in the historical introduction to the film Tombstone, as do numerous other clips from the film, notably the man shot while attempting to escape the robbers.
  • According to media historian James Chapman, the gun barrel sequence featured in the James Bond films are similar to that scene featuring of Justus D. Barnes firing at the camera. The sequence was created by Maurice Binder.[11]
  • In Martin Scorsese's 2011 film Hugo, there is a clip while the main characters were reading a book, with other famous movie clips such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • The 1904 film The Bold Bank Robbery was inspired by the success of this film.
  • In 1996 during an Arthur episode, the film was remade, but had background music and dialogue by the voice actors from the TV Show.


  1. ^ a b Souter, Gerry (2012). American Shooter: A Personal History of Gun Culture in the United States. Potomac Books, Inc. p. 254. ISBN 1-597-97690-3. 
  2. ^ "Daring Daylight Burglary, A (1903)". BFI Screenonline. Retrieved 2012-10-11. 
  3. ^ "What is the First Action Film?". 
  4. ^ "Volume 3: Biographies - Barnes, George". 1995. pp. Q. David Bowers. Retrieved 26 February 2015. 
  5. ^ Musser, Charles. "Moving Towards Fictional Narratives: Story Films Become the Dominant Product." In The Silent Cinema Reader, edited by Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer. London: Routledge 2004, p. 89.
  6. ^ Musser (2004), p. 90.
  7. ^ Brooklyn Clipper 19 December 1903.
  8. ^ a b Winter, Jessica; Hughes, Lloyd (2007). The Rough Guide to Film. Penguin. p. 429. ISBN 1-405-38498-0. 
  9. ^ "Overview of Edison Motion Pictures by Genre - Drama & Adventure". Retrieved 2012-10-11. 
  10. ^ Eisner, Joel; Krinsky, David (1984). Television Comedy Series: An Episode Guide To 153 TV Sitcoms In Syndication. McFarland. p. 93. ISBN 0-899-50088-9. 
  11. ^ Chapman, James (2000). Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. Columbia University Press. p. 61. ISBN 0-231-12048-6. 

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