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.
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. 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".
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 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.
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 based on the shot from this film.
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. 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..."
The film's budget was an estimated $150. Upon its release, The Great Train Robbery became a massive success and is considered one of the first Western films. 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.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).
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.
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.
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.
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 those 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 prolog.
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).