The Great Train Robbery (1903)

A series of simply framed set pieces tell the story of outlaws stopping and robbing a train of its valuables - from the passengers and from the freight van. In the first three scenes, the action takes place on either side of the screen. In the opening, set in the station ticket office, the camera takes in the door on the left through which the bandits rush to hold up, knock out and tie up the clerk; and a large window on the right through which we can see a train waiting, passengers leaning out of the window, and its pulling away just as the bandits leave. In the next scene, the bandits hide behind the water-tower from which the train is refilling its tender, and then when the driver's back is turned, they clamber on board. The twin centres of activity give a sense of cause and effect, of anticipation - and even a little tension, though it's not clear how the first scene relates to the second.

Never mind, the willing suspension of disbelief is critical here. Now we are inside the freight car, with the freight officer bobbing backwards and forwards in front of a board, with the carriage door to the extreme left and the open side of the carriage to the right showing the scenery as it speeds past. It's in this scene that we realise that the use of technology may be innovative, but the acting isn't. Watch how he looks self-consciously at the camera then, hearing the commotion outside, points dramatically to the security box, and dies theatrically when shot by the outlaws, arms outstretched and with a full pirouette. Rigor mortis sets in before death, it seems.

There's some dynamism in the next sequence, with the camera mounted on top of the tender looking forward into the cabin. One of the robbers clambers up and fights with the fireman. In what must be one of the earliest scenes of gratuitous violence in cinema history, he pummels the fireman senseless, then repeatedly bashes his skull with a lump of coal. The fireman's body - now a dummy - is slung off the train. Fortunately, the train, never exactly speeding, is now slowing to a halt, so no dummies were harmed in the making of this picture.

It takes the robbers an interminable length of time to relieve the well-to-do passengers of their belongings, one of whom becomes their second innocent victim, also keen to make a meal of being shot. Eventually they escape with the swag on horseback. Meanwhile, back at the station, the clerk recovers and is untied by a figure so small and heavily cloaked, it's difficult to tell whether it is his wife or daughter. Cut to a barn dance (yes, we're getting cross-cutting now, as well as folksy entertainment) and we get a full Cumberland reel (geddit?) before the clerk bursts in and tears the sheriff away from his do-si-do. His posse gives chase and catches them up remarkably quickly, given how long the ceilidh lasted, but there is a gunfight and the robbers all killed.

The final shot is a close up of a gunman, facing us and letting us have all six barrels. Perhaps it's to remind us that if we have designs on a train and its wealth, the law will catch up with us!

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