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, and may also have been inspired by a 1900 train robbery perpetrated by Butch Cassidy.[2][3]

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.[4] 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".[5][6]

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 Great Train Robbery (1903), the first Western film.

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.

Final shot

Justus D. Barnes as the leader of the outlaw band, taking aim and firing point blank at the audience.

An additional scene of the film presents a medium close-up of the leader of the bandits, played by Justus D. Barnes, who empties his pistol point-blank directly into the camera. The scene is not directly related to anything in the main narrative, and is described as "Realism" by the accompanying letter from Edison Manufacturing.[7] Although it is usually placed at the end, Porter stated that the scene could also appear at the beginning of the film.[8]


Production notes

Porter's film was shot at the Edison studios in New York City, on location in New Jersey at the South Mountain Reservation, part of the modern Essex County Park system, as well as along the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. Filmed during November 1903, the picture was advertised as available for sale to distributors in December of that same year.[10]

Though shot in black and white, certain sections of print were hand-colored (for example, the pink and orange vault explosion, the colored dresses in the dance hall sequence, and the green shirt in the film's final shot).[3]

Release and reception

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.[11] In advertising for the film, Edison agents touted the film as "...absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made"[12] as well as a "...faithful imitation of the genuine 'Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West..."[12][8]

The film's budget was an estimated $150.[1] Upon its release, The Great Train Robbery became a massive success and is considered one of the first Western films.[13] 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.[13]

Remake and Imitators

The success of The Great Train Robbery inspired several similar films. The first (premiering less than was a year later, in August 1904) was a remake of the same name directed by Siegmund Lubin.[14][15] It has been called the first film remake[16] (at the time, copyright protection for motion pictures was legally murky and illegally copied prints and unauthorized remakes abounded. It wasn't until the 1912 Townsend Amendment to the Copyright Act of 1909 that motion pictures were specifically defined as a protected work).[17]

The film also inspired numerous imitators, including The Bold Bank Robbery (1904, also produced by Lubin) and The Hold-Up Of The Rocky Mountain Express (1906). Porter himself tried to re-capture his previous success with The Life of an American Cowboy (1906)[18] and 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 to steal their dolls and candy).[19]

In popular culture

  • 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.[20]
  • 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.[21]
  • The final scene of Martin Scorsese's 1990 film Goodfellas, in which the character Tommy shoots at the camera, recreates this film's final scene as a homage. Scorsese has been quoted as saying the shot is "...a reference right to the end of The Great Train Robbery... and basically the plot of this picture is very similar to The Great Train Robbery."[22]
  • 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).[23]

See also


  1. ^ a b Souter, Gerry (2012). American Shooter: A Personal History of Gun Culture in the United States. Potomac Books, Inc. p. 254. ISBN 1-597-97690-3. 
  2. ^ p.39 Mayer, David Stagestruck Filmmaker: D. W. Griffith and the American Theatre University of Iowa Press 1 Mar 2009
  3. ^ a b Kramer, Fritzi (3 November 2013). "The Great Train Robbery (1903) A Silent Film Review". moviessilently.com/. Retrieved 13 November 2017. they blow up the safe (with a pink and orange hand-colored explosion) 
  4. ^ Jess-Cooke, Carolyn (2009). Film Sequels: Theory and Practice from Hollywood to Bollywood. Oxford University Press. p. 1939. ISBN 0-748-68947-8. 
  5. ^ Keim, Norman O. (2008). Our Movie Houses: A History of Film & Cinematic Innovation in Central New York. Syracuse University Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-815-60896-9. 
  6. ^ Moses, L. G. (1999). Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883-1933. UNM Press. p. 225. ISBN 0-826-32089-9. 
  7. ^ Edison Films Cataloghttps://www.loc.gov/item/00694220
  8. ^ a b McGee, Scott. "The Great Train Robbery". tcm.com. Retrieved 13 November 2017. 
  9. ^ Bowers, Q. David (1995). "Volume 3: Biographies - Barnes, George". Thanhouser.org. Retrieved February 26, 2015. 
  10. ^ Musser, Charles (2004). "5". In Grieveson, Lee; Krämer, Peter. The Silent Cinema Reader. London: Routledge. p. 89. ISBN 0-415-25283-0. 
  11. ^ (Musser 2004, p. 90)
  12. ^ a b Smith, Michael Glover; Selzer, Adam (2015). Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry. Columbia University Press. p. 71. ISBN 0-231-85079-4. 
  13. ^ a b Winter, Jessica; Hughes, Lloyd (2007). The Rough Guide to Film. Penguin. p. 429. ISBN 1-405-38498-0. 
  14. ^ Kramer, Fritzi (19 April 2017). "The Bold Bank Robbery (1904) A Silent Film Review". moviessilently.com/. Retrieved 13 November 2017. Lubin would release his own unauthorized remake of The Great Train Robbery in 1904. 
  15. ^ Slide, Anthony (1994). Early American Cinema (Revised Edition (1994) ed.). Scarecrow Press. p. 17. ISBN 9780810827226. Following Edison's success with The Great Train Robbery, Lubin released his Great Train Robbery, a shot by shot re-enactment, in August 1904 
  16. ^ Jones, Briana (2 March 2016). "These Are The Very First Movie Sequel, Remake, And Reboots Ever". all-that-is-interesting.com. Retrieved 13 November 2017. In 1904, director Siegmund Lubin released his own version of the film, under the very same name, and made it nearly identical to its predecessor. 
  17. ^ Evina, Frank (October 2004). "Copyright Lore" (PDF). Copyright.gov. Retrieved 2011-11-27. 
  18. ^ Lusted, David (2014). The Western. Routledge. p. 78. ISBN 1-317-87491-9. 
  19. ^ "Overview of Edison Motion Pictures by Genre - Drama & Adventure". Retrieved 2012-10-11. 
  20. ^ Eisner, Joel; Krinsky, David (1984). Television Comedy Series: An Episode Guide To 153 TV Sitcoms In Syndication. McFarland. p. 93. ISBN 0-899-50088-9. 
  21. ^ Chapman, James (2000). Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. Columbia University Press. p. 61. ISBN 0-231-12048-6. 
  22. ^ Thompson, David; Ian Christie (1996). "Scorsese on Scorsese". Faber and Faber. pp. 150–161. 
  23. ^ Western von Gestern website (German)

External links