The Great Train Robbery (1903 film)

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This article is about the silent film. For the 2013 film named The Great Train Robbery, see The Great Train Robbery (2013 film). For the 1979 film known in the U.S. as The Great Train Robbery, see The First Great Train Robbery.
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 date
  • 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, 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. The film was inspired by Scott Marble's 1896 stage play.[2]

At twelve minutes long, The Great Train Robbery film is considered a milestone in film making, expanding on Porter's previous work Life of an American Fireman. The film used a number of then-unconventional techniques, including composite editing, on-location shooting, and frequent camera movement. The film is one of the earliest to use the technique of cross cutting, in which two scenes are shown to be occurring simultaneously but in different locations. Some prints were also hand colored in certain scenes. Techniques used in The Great Train Robbery were inspired by those used in Frank Mottershaw's British film A Daring Daylight Burglary, released earlier in the year.[3] Film historians now largely consider The Great Train Robbery to be the first American action film and the first Western film with a "recognizable form".[4][5]

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 Great Train Robbery (1903), the first Western film.

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 to fill the locomotive's tender at the station's water tank. They then knock the operator out and tie him up. As the train stops it is boarded by the bandits‍—‌now four. Two bandits enter an express 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 where their horses had been left.

Meanwhile, back in the telegraph office, the bound operator awakens, but he collapses again. His daughter arrives bringing him his meal and cuts him free, and restores him to consciousness by dousing him with water.

There is some comic relief at a dance hall, where an eastern stranger is forced to dance while the locals fire at his feet. The door suddenly opens and the telegraph operator rushes in to tell them of the robbery. The men quickly form a posse, which overtakes the bandits, and in a final shootout kills them all and recovers the stolen mail.

Final shot[edit]

Justus D. Barnes as "Bronco Billy Anderson", the leader of the outlaw band, taking aim and firing point blank at the audience, shocking many first-time moviegoers with the extreme realism of the final shot.[citation needed]

An additional scene of the film is a close up of the leader of the bandits, played by Justus D. Barnes, who empties his pistol point blank into the camera. Although it is usually placed at the end, Porter stated that the scene could also appear at the beginning of the film.

In the 1990 film Goodfellas, the final shot of Tommy shooting at the camera was taken from this film.

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.[6]


Release and reception[edit]

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.[8] In advertising for the film, Edison agents touted the film as "...absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made"[9] as well as a "...faithful imitation of the genuine 'Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West..."[9]

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.[10] 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.[10]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The success of The Great Train Robbery inspired several similar films including: The Bold Bank Robbery (1904) and The Hold-Up Of The Rocky Mountain Express (1906), and another Edwin S. Porter film The Life of an American Cowboy (1906).[11]
  • Edwin S. Porter also 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.[12]
  • In the 1966 Batman TV Series episode entitled "The Riddler's False Notion", silent film star Francis X. Bushman guest stars as the wealthy film collector who owns a print of The Great Train Robbery.[13]
  • In the last episode of season three of Breaking Bad, the closing scene is of Jesse Pinkman pointing his gun at the camera and firing into it as a homage of the ending to the film.
  • According to media historian James Chapman, the gun barrel sequence featured in the James Bond films are similar to the scene featuring of Justus D. Barnes firing at the camera. The sequence was created by Maurice Binder.[14]
  • The final scene of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, in which the character Tommy shoots at the camera, recreates this film's final scene as a homage.
  • In the Netflix series Bojack Horseman, Princess Carolyn has a number of conversations with Lenny Turteltaub, an old-timer in show business. As such, he regularly inserts references to meetings he had with other famous stars and filmmakers from cinema's early days, including Buster Keaton and Lionel Barrymore. During one conversation, he states: "As I said to Ed Porter at the premier of 'The Great Train Robbery,' 'Aggh! The train's coming right at me!'" The reference is being confused, however, with L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat by the Lumière Brothers. The confusion comes from the fact that both The Great Train Robbery and L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat have elements that appear to be moving toward the audience (not to mention that early film audiences, according to legend, are [dubiously] purported to have ducked at these elements). However, it is in L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat that this element is a train; in The Great Train Robbery said element is the pistol being pointed at the audience and fired during the iconic final shot of the film.
  • The movie Tombstone uses the shot into the camera cut during its prologue.
  • The film's iconic final scene with Justus D. Barnes was used for the title and finishing sequences of a German 1978-1986 TV show named Western von Gestern (lit. "Yesterday's Western", by the ZDF).[15]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ p.39 Mayer, David Stagestruck Filmmaker: D. W. Griffith and the American Theatre University of Iowa Press 1 Mar 2009
  3. ^ Jess-Cooke, Carolyn (2009). Film Sequels: Theory and Practice from Hollywood to Bollywood. Oxford University Press. p. 1939. ISBN 0-748-68947-8. 
  4. ^ Keim, Norman O. (2008). Our Movie Houses: A History of Film & Cinematic Innovation in Central New York. Syracuse University Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-815-60896-9. 
  5. ^ Moses, L. G. (1999). Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883-1933. UNM Press. p. 225. ISBN 0-826-32089-9. 
  6. ^ Musser, Charles (2004). "5". In Grieveson, Lee; Krämer, Peter. The Silent Cinema Reader. London: Routledge. p. 89. ISBN 0-415-25283-0. 
  7. ^ Bowers, Q. David (1995). "Volume 3: Biographies - Barnes, George". Retrieved February 26, 2015. 
  8. ^ (Musser 2004, p. 90)
  9. ^ a b Smith, Michael Glover; Selzer, Adam (2015). Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry. Columbia University Press. p. 71. ISBN 0-231-85079-4. 
  10. ^ a b Winter, Jessica; Hughes, Lloyd (2007). The Rough Guide to Film. Penguin. p. 429. ISBN 1-405-38498-0. 
  11. ^ Lusted, David (2014). The Western. Routledge. p. 78. ISBN 1-317-87491-9. 
  12. ^ "Overview of Edison Motion Pictures by Genre - Drama & Adventure". Retrieved 2012-10-11. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ Chapman, James (2000). Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. Columbia University Press. p. 61. ISBN 0-231-12048-6. 
  15. ^ Western von Gestern website (German)

External links[edit]