The Great Train Robbery (1903). 12 minutes. Directed by Edwin S. Porter. Starring Alfred C. Abadie (as sheriff), Broncho Billy Anderson (as bandit, shot passenger, and dancer), Justus D. Barnes (as bandit who fires at camera), Walter Cameron (as sheriff), Donald Gallaher (as little boy), Frank Hanaway (as bandit), Adam Charles Hayman (as bandit), John Manus Dougherty, Sr. (as bandit), Marie Murray (as dancer), and Mary Snow (as little girl). Written and produced by Edwin S. Porter.
The silent short The Great Train Robbery is considered to be a landmark in early film. It is the first Western (although it was not shot in the American West), the first action film, and one of the first narrative films. It features legendary Western actor Broncho Billy Anderson, who would go on to found Essanay Studios near Fremont, California. It also contains one of the most iconic final images in all of film: in the last frames, a bandit (played by Justus D. Barnes) fires directly at the audience. This practice of shooting directly at the viewer was outlawed by the Hays Office when it was established in 1930, a decision that was indicative of the long-lasting cultural significance of The Great Train Robbery’s final shots even 27 years later. But its influence stretches beyond the era of the Hollywood Production Code—for example, in Goodfellas (1990), the final image of Joe Pesci shooting at the camera is an homage to this short film.
The plot is fairly simple: two bandits overtake a railroad operator in his office and compel him at gunpoint to make a train stop at a water tower before tying him up. The train stops as ordered, then is boarded by four bandits who kill several men at the head of the train. Inside one of the cars, the gunmen blow up a locked box containing important papers and confiscate them. They force the engineer at gunpoint to stop the train and unhitch the engine, then some of them force the passengers off the train, killing one of them. After boarding the engine and leaving the passengers behind, the outlaws make their way to a forest where they have left horses and ride off. In the meantime, a young girl finds the railroad operator tied up and frees him. He rushes to a public dance, where he enlists a team of armed men to ride after the bandits. Soon the posse catches up with them and shoots them down. The final image of the film is of one of the bandits in close up, firing his gun at the camera.
This movie is famous for its many firsts, which I have touched on above, but it is also famous for the way that it shocked its audience with gunfire and violence. (Its reputation prompted the satirical newspaper The Onion to include a fake vintage article on it in its collection of made-up news stories, Our Dumb Century: “Moving Photo-Drama Cinema-Play ‘The Great Train Robbery’ Causes Many Breeches to Be Soiled.”) The idea that the earliest film-going audiences were not used to seeing films and were thus unaccustomed to thinking of them as works of art separate from real life may be true but is a little precious and probably exaggerated. To today’s audience, which has been reared on film and television, the film will likely not be frightening in the least, and its hyperbolic reputation for inspiring terror will be difficult to comprehend.
I suppose the question is: why then should a modern audience see this movie, and why should people still care about it? On a technical level, there are many reasons to appreciate The Great Train Robbery. For example, the movie uses cross-cutting to show simultaneous action in different locales. Previously in film, sequences played out in their entirety before a cut to a chronologically successive sequence took place. The film’s use of location was similarly exceptional. Although some of it was shot indoors at Edison’s studios in New York, the outdoor footage was shot in New Jersey. Finally, the use of the close-up in the final moments was also remarkable. Focusing on a particular face was still a novel concept and had not yet become a film mainstay.
Those are the technical reasons for appreciating it. But I suppose for audiences that might not care so much about movie history, it comes down to those final shots fired by Justus D. Barnes. They reverberate beyond the screen. Ironically, this is one of the first times that a shot (a piece of film footage that consists of one continuous take, joined up with other shots to make a movie) actually consisted of a shot (a bullet fired from a gun). But although through the steady concentration of the take we can clearly observe a man shooting, the context in which he fires is obscured. This is a close-up of a bandit, presumably, and it is the only close-up in the movie—reserved not for one of the heroes but for a villain and for an act of criminal violence. It is a weird kind of gift to the bandit, giving him a measure of humanity that no one else in the film enjoys.
But do the shots that Barnes fires even take place in the movie, or do they belong to another place and time? Presumably he is one of the bandits who dies at the end of the film in the forest grove, but in the final moments as he shoots at us, he is alive once more and seems to be in front of a wall. Upon reflection, it is unclear whether he is one of the characters we have seen perish or someone else. The image of him firing a pistol are disorienting and slightly confusing, but they impart an aura of mystery to him and give us the sense that he exists beyond the world of the film, that he is living outside the bandits’ death scene and possibly beyond his own demise, in some sense immortal.
There is something about Barnes in that scene—his focus, his impressive mustache, his perfect bandanna, his squinting eyes and furrowed brow, the threat of him seeming so near and with his pistol aimed directly at us—that suggests the full-on power of the outlaw, someone whom we know to be bad and worthy of capture but whom we sort of in some ways long to be. What to do with the outlaw was an issue that Hollywood struggled with especially in its early days of sound, when movies such as Howard Hawks’s Scarface, along with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, were accused of making gangsters look impressive without condemning them forcefully enough. It is important to acknowledge that The Great Train Robbery could have ended with the image of the outlaw’s death and punishment, but instead, he gets the final moment of the movie all to himself, with no explicit commentary to quarantine him or his morality.
And just as Barnes’s shots disrupt our sense that justice has triumphed over point-blank brutality, the final image also directly involves us, the audience, in that brutality. As Chris Edwards writes, it “pulls us violently from our positions as passive observers. We were content to watch the murders, safe in our distance from them—now, we’re being gunned down ourselves.” For these reasons, I would say Barnes’s eerie, silent close-up makes the whole movie. It does not matter to me that overall the law is triumphant in the end—the final image made me wish to see the bandit do more. Any movie that can establish that much in one image is worth seeing.