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Film / The Great Train Robbery (1903)

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Shooting the audience half a century before James Bond.

An early film Western, made in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison's production company. It depicts a group of criminals robbing a train and its passengers, escaping in the uncoupled locomotive, and then being pursued and killed by a posse recruited from a local dance hall. Apart from the title card and the famous shot of an outlaw firing at the audience, the film consists of thirteen shots, taking place in three interior and a variety of exterior locations. There are no intertitles.

It was one of the longest narrative films yet produced at the time,note  and contains early uses of what would come to be standard cinematic techniques: composite editing (via multiple exposure), location shooting, intercutting between simultaneously-occurring scenes, cutting within the same scene to compress time, and camera movement.

This film is in the public domain, and may be viewed at YouTube and elsewhere.

Not to be confused with the real-life British train robbery that happened in 1963, the 1975 Michael Crichton novel of the same title, the 1978 film based on Crichton's novel, or other Similarly Named Works.

This film provides examples of:

  • Bound and Gagged: The bandits knock out the station agent and tie him up.
  • Bullet Dancing: Done by the townspeople, oddly enough, when a "dude" in fancy clothes intrudes upon their square dance.
  • Dark Is Evil: One thing that makes the bandits stand out is that they all wear black.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: One of the earliest known film examples of this trope; the leader of the outlaws fires at the audience. There are urban legends that some people were so shocked at seeing this, that they ducked or even passed out in the theater—well, even in 1903 people knew that real bandits were in color and three-dimensional, so probably not. But the final shot doubtlessly made an impact. It's a surprise even for a modern-day viewer.
  • In the Back: One of the passengers makes a break for it, only to receive this as a result.
  • Jump Cut: The transition between the scenes of the locomotive taking off and stopping is a bit too close in composition.
  • Pistol-Whipping: How the bandits knock out the station agent.
  • Popcultural Osmosis: It's mainly known through its homages, particularly the famous shot of Justus Barnes being used in Tombstone.
  • Posse: The townspeople form one and chase down the bandits.
  • Sean Connery Is About to Shoot You: Justus D. Barnes did it 60 years before the Trope Namer. This famous shot is not part of the film's main continuity; it can, in the words of the Edison catalogue, "be used either to begin the subject or to end it".
  • Splash of Color: The gunshot and some clothing, achieved by hand-coloring frames one at a time.
  • Thief Bag: How the bandits carry their loot away. Missing the stereotypical dollar sign, though.
  • Train Job: This film is the Ur-Example (at least for movies) of an armed railroad robbery, with the bandits pistol-whipping, binding and gagging the station agent before boarding the titular train and robbing it.
  • Trope Codifier: It wasn't by any stretch the first Western film or the first narrative one, but it is probably the earliest film which got as popular as it did within its original release.
  • The Western: Popularly known as the very first! invokedPopularly.