Saturday, September 29, 2012

Silence is Golden: "The Great Train Robbery" (1903)

This classic western has everything: good guys, bad guys, a train robbery, murder, shootings...and no sound. What a full twelve minutes!

Filmed in 1903 in the wilderness of New Jersey, this short film from Thomas Edison's company broke new ground in film making. Three robbers tie up a station agent and board a train when it stops to water. They rob the postal car, and blow the safe. They then force the engineer to stop, unload the passengers, and rob them all, killing an escapee. They board the now uncoupled engine and ride it ahead, jumping off and escaping into the nearby woods.

A little girl discovers the station agent, and the local townsfolk stop their dance and form a posse. They find the greedy trio, and kill them in a gunfight, getting all the loot back. The famous closing shot has an actor firing a gun directly into the camera, something that had audiences diving for cover a century ago.

The film is pretty good, especially considering that viewers back then had never seen anything like it before. The special effects are good, the direction static but fine, and the editing is brisk. Some of the actors overemote, throwing their arms in the air when shot, but that is okay. There are no titles in the original film now at the Library of Congress, but the story is so simple, you will figure it out. While the film is not must-see classic that will change your life, "The Great Train Robbery" is definitely a hoot. Western fans will enjoys seeing where all their cliches began, and film buffs will get a kick out of it, too.

At twelve minutes, what have you got to lose? (* * * *) out of five stars.