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“The Great Train Robbery” by Edwin S. Porter Review Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 14th, 2022

This is a research paper of history of film pre 1930. My topic is about the response of critics to the movie “The great train robbery” when it first came out and how it changed over time, how did people respond to it then and over time up to now.

Silent era films are films that only contain motion picture without sound. Silent films make up majority of the films made in the years preceding 1930. The use of body expressions in these films acted to cover for the lack of sound. This meant that there had to be a lot of bodily actions in the film. Synchronization of sound films posed a formidable challenge to film makers during that era. The end of silent era films came in the 1920s with the synchronization of sound in films. The first of these was called the jazz singer. It was followed by many other such productions in the 1920s.

Film criticism has been seen as a way of assessing the public appeal of a film as well as the artistic merit. Traditionally, the effect of criticism acted only to improve the production of movies and films. In modern times, that has changed effectively. Criticism of movies possesses significant impact on the sale of movies. In the contemporary world, criticism has always been what people rely on when purchasing newly released movies or watching the same in the theatres. Positive film review has been accredited with sparking interest in little known films.

Films made before 1930 have not been subjected to the kind of criticism accorded to modern movies. Criticism of movies has evolved through the decades up to today. The review on movies starts prior to the release or even the shooting. In modern times, critics go as far as criticizing the choice of actors in a film. The Great Train Robbery movie has not been deeply criticized. Criticism did not exist at the time of release of the film. Reviews to the movie industry have, however, been done in relation to the film. These reviews are focused more on the positive side of the movie and to a lesser extent on the negative. In fact, what mostly exist outlines on the movie and not actual the criticism. Modern criticism focuses on the positive and negatives of any particular film.

From the little review done, the film can be termed as a great milestone within the film industry. This film saw the application of new techniques first in it. The film used innovative techniques like cross cutting and double exposure editing. Other new techniques applied in the film included camera movement and on location shooting. The movie, based on a real-life train heist, can be considered a classic creation in the film industry. The movie played an influential role in revealing the possibility of fiction stories on film. Most motion pictures prior to this one, revolved around true stories.

Though not particularly artistic by today’s standards, it invented a lot of ideas which have been adopted in modern film. There are many innovations that are accredited to this film making it the first western film containing a storyline with various western clichés. This feature has been used in many western films that have followed “the great train robbery”. The shooting was done out of chronological sequence. All scenes of movies prior to this one were shot in a non-chronological manner. This feature was made possible by employing the cross cutting way of editing films. The movie does not include fades or dissolves between the scenes or shots.

According to Dirks (n.d), the film was rated a success in the film industry. Soon after its release, the film received wide reception from the public. The Great Train Robber came out as the most popular film which performed well commercially during the pre-nickelodeon era. It firmly brought into fore the awareness that the film industry could be commercially viable. One would ask why the success. The director of the film was innovative enough to apply new techniques when shooing and developing the 12 minutes long film. For instance, the film had scenes where a new style of parallelism was applied. In parallel editing, a main plot of the movie taking place cuts back to show a different set of scenes happening simultaneously. In the film, we encounter new techniques of editing where the there is a display of two separate lines of actions happening continuously at identical times.

The development of the script in the film displayed a great deal of technological innovation of the time. The director of the film Porter was able to capture images of people running into the forest through his camera, a totally new aspect in the film industry during 1900’s. On the other hand, the film was color tinted making it a rare one of its kind. The film developers were able to use a color that draws us to the objects in the scenes which reflects a high standard of shooting a film in the 1900’s. This aspect of quality of color is brought to the limelight whenever there is a shoot out in the film. The gun shots come with a wave of color rather than the grayish and white puff of smoke. The same was seen when the robbers used the dynamite to open the safe.

Rosenberg (n.d) while offering a critical review of the movie ‘the great train robbery’ concedes that the movie was a success story of its time. The film ushers in new and standard techniques in the film industry, such as the cross-cutting. The plot also resembles many of today’s movies on robberies in banks, trains and hijacks. She says that apart from being the first narrative movie, the Great Train Robbery introduced other techniques in the film industry. In the film, we encounter a shift from the traditional single set to the filming in different locations. To Porter, this was an important aspect of shooting his movie. This added flavor to the film since it was shot in 10 different locations. The movie includes the use of rear projection for the first time in the film industry. The image of a moving train can be seen through a window. This can also be termed as another first innovation in the movie. The producer introduced the use of moving cameras when shooting films first appears in this movie. The camera shooting the scene was mounted on a moving train. Development of film editing using cross cutting technology appears hear. The producer first applied this feature in this film. The feature has since been popular in cinematic art. It became the first motion smash hit. This created the notion that the film industry could become a commercially viable medium. This innova Train Robberyki, 2001).

A critical review of the film is to be found in the works of Gunning Tom (n.d.). He provides an argument presented in 1922 by Fernand Leger. The critic had tried to define the possibilities of radical changes in the film/cinema industry in the 1920’s. He forwarded an argument that the potential of the new art lay not in imitating the movement of nature but in making images seen. This underscored the importance of harnessing the visibility of event as that was ushered in by early narrative films such as The Great Train Robbery. The writer presents another food for thought on the contribution of the film in the growth of the film industry. The film The Great Train Robbery was such a thriller and crowd puller that theatres started to fill to the brim. This led to the setting up of more permanent theatres which were a big attraction. Early audiences frequented the theatres during exhibitions to have a look at the machines on demonstrations. The newest technology was such a wonder that, at one point, it was felt that the viewers went there purposely for the machines and not the films.

The Great Train Robbery ushered in an era in the film industry where short films became the in thing. They were either arranged in a non –narrative or narrative form. Basically, their presentation took place in the nickelodeons. The most notable thing was that they appeared in different formats. The non-narrative films were the precedent of the narrative films. They were relatively poor in terms of quality which led to much criticism. The setting in of the narrative forms was seen as an end to the low quality acts, and the Great Train Robbery is credited for breaking the ground for this great revolution in the film industry. Its release brought in the era of film attraction into the theatres. Despite the later shift to the world of fiction in the film industry, the aspect of attraction has not lost value.

Modern critics have argued over the importance of the film. The ten long film produced over 180 years ago has fourteen scenes each with its unique purpose with regard to narrative and character development. The hot de bate has centered over the issue of whether The Great Train Robbery was the first western movie. A closer review of the film reveals western ideas, styles and props which makes many critics qualifies the film as arguably the first true western movie of its kind. Critics have tried to authenticate the genre of The Big Train Robbery based on the aspect of the plot. They put into consideration the world of movies’; one of robbery, bandits, outlaws and innocence. Another authenticity is based on the period in time of the shooting. This was the era where the American society was undergoing transformation in major spheres of life (Rosenberg, n.d.). There was the transport revolution, women empowerment and basically the nation was establishing itself as an economic and sociological powerhouse, a step away from the nostalgia of the West. The Americans were slowly detaching themselves from the close ties with the west and the coming in of the film retained a certain importance with early American film lovers-excitement, nostalgia, and the thrills of cowboys and criminals. (Rosenberg, n.d).

Critics dispute the fact that the film can be classified as an epic film. They claim that the film fall way far from a standard movie in the contemporary word. However, they all point out that there exist some aspects of the film which are still in use, in the contemporary film industry. The director of the film The Great Train Robbery centered his 12 minute film into three main parts – the robbery, the escape and the capture of the robbers by the sheriffs. A look into the modern film industry reveals that movie makers still employ this basic structure. The only notable difference is the extent of character development, which is more profound than in Porter’s film The Great Train Robbery

Some critics have downplayed the importance of the film in the industry. They argue that the film apart from, the style of cross-cutting lacks the quality of a good film. They claim that most of the time the audiences are kept glued to the screen with events of square dancing. The plot is too standard with the only special effects being too vague to impress the viewer in the contemporary world of the film industry. For instance, in one of the scenes, one of the robbers is seen beating a man to death. He then throws him off the moving train even though its evident to the audience that the figure being beaten is actually a tailor made dummy. However, despite the negative comments about the film, they concede that the film was quite an achievement bearing in mind the time in history that the film was directed.

The violent nature of the movie marked a precedent chapter for many such movies which were shot later and have been in production up to date. For instance, the incident in scene eleven where the robber forces a character to dance by shooting at his feet was a thriller that had been repeated in many western movies. This underscored the success of the film as it influenced modern movies. Nowadays, there are many movies that are longer than the Great Train Tragedy where bandits rob valuables only for them to be killed in a shooting by the police (Dirks, n.d). The most popular movies in the world today resemble Porte’s film that in many ways presents the lavish lifestyle of characters to the violent nature and the attempts of struggling in different situations and their consequences.

The film has been accused to be a bad example in the modern generation especially among the teenagers. It features scenes that are full of immorality. The immorality ranges from sexual point to the aspect of robbery. In one of the scenes, viewers are suggested the situations where the sheriffs and their accomplices are engaging in a merry celebratory feast. Here, we encounter women dancing with dresses dropped to the knee level. The portrayal of sexual immorality where men drink in the company of half naked men, has continued to influence modern film industry (Haberski, 2007). The immorality of the film industry in America was transferred from the nickelodeons of the times of The Great Train Robbery to the halls of Hollywood. The movies coming out of the world largest film and movie centre in the world were a reflection of the nickelodeon films led by the ‘great train robbery’.

The film The Greatest Train Robbery has come under criticism for its unnatural acts in some scenes. For instance, when a character is shot in the film, he stands straight and waves his arm that does not appear natural. The other unnatural act is put in the limelight when one of the robbers beat the dummy in the pretext that it is a man. The scenes of the robber throwing the dummy out of the moving train rivals the over-acting aspect of deaths in the film.

Another critical review is provided by Jessica (2007). The Porters film is credited for being the first narrative document on how to execute a robbery. It is seen as coach to potential robbers on how to best execute a robbery. These fears have continued to be experienced even in the modern days where the movie industry is regarded as the most effective and widespread tool of encouraging the perpetuation of crimes. However, on a positive tool the film industry has evolved from the times of Porter, to become an effective media for positive participation in the civil society.

A critical review of The Great Train Robbery reveals a great contribution across the film industry. One of them was the aspect of editing which becomes a mainstay in the film industry for a long time. It is regarded as the onset of modern day documentaries. The modern day’s Porter is best represented by D.W. Griffith and Sergei Einstein. The former developed film rhetoric using consistent use of the flash back, deep focus, long shot and the pan shot. This was after making a major discovery on the effect of the films in the minds of the audiences. He laid much emphasis on the interplay between events which allowed the spectators to synthesis the events relayed on the screen. This is an extension of Porter’s way of making the films more narrative through moving images that are consistent. On the other hand, Einstein pioneered the montage technique which serves as a creation of sense of meaning and objectivity contained in the images themselves but is derived exclusively from juxtaposition (Silbey, 2007).

This movie would score poorly if judged by today’s standards of criticism. The length of the movie would be a massive shortfall. Some modern day commercials are the length of this movie. The fact that this type of criticism has not been applied on the movie makes it a classic. A lot of innovations have been accredited to the movie. There are numerous reasons for this movie to be talked about so highly. First, there existed no real critics at the time. The review of this movie has been done many years after the release. This means that the purpose of the movie could not be clearly identified. Secondly, the choice of characters can not be questioned. There existed no professional actors back in those days. Most of the people who acted in movies came from the public and would be volunteers.


  1. Dirks, T. (n.d.). (1903). Filmsite. Web.
  2. Gunning, T. (n.d.). The Cinema Of Attraction; Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant- Garde.
  3. Haberski, R.J. (2001). It’s Only A Movie!: Film and Critics in American Culture. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.
  4. Rosenberg, J. (n.d). . About.com Web.
  5. Silbey, J. (2007). A History of Representation of Justice; Coincident Preoccupation of Law and Film. Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang.
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