The very early days of the Western movie
The Great Train Robbery is often regarded as the first Western movie. It wasn’t, actually. Cowboys had been captured on celluloid before and short Western scenes were quite common. As early as 1894 Buffalo Bill Cody’s troupe had been filmed and there had been a motion picture Lasso Thrower. These were viewed by a single person in a kind of what-the-butler-saw device. In 1896 motion pictures were first commercially projected onto large screens in the US. In 1898 there was Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene and the following year Poker at Dawson City. Earlier in the same year as The Great Train Robbery, Biograph released A Bucking Broncho, with the camera panning with the movement of the horse, and when the bronc backs up suddenly, the audience must have thought it would end up in their laps. A more ambitious attempt than these vignettes came when in the summer of ’03 Biograph produced the 21-minute Kit Carson, eleven fictional scenes of the life of the great pioneer, including a violent scalping. Western thrills had come to the masses.
So no, The Great Train Robbery was not the first Western movie. But when it was released at the end of the year the Western movie as we know it was effectively born. Suddenly we have a dramatically creative story-film constructing an illusion of reality – the magic at the heart of the whole motion picture industry. It told a tale visually. And it established the crime-pursuit-showdown element that was to become standard to the Western. There was gunplay and galloping and a posse. There was even the comic scene of cowboys shooting at the feet of a tenderfoot in a saloon to make him dance. And of course the whole notion of holding up trains would become a trope of the Western, especially those dealing with the James or Dalton gangs.
That tenderfoot made to dance was Maxwell Henry Aronson, soon to become Gilbert M Anderson and even more famous as Broncho Billy. He also played a bandit and the train passenger who is shot. It was his first Western of over 300 in a career that was to last till an entertaining farewell performance at the age of 85 in The Bounty Killer. In 1904 he was in another Edison/Edwin S Porter film, Western Stage Coach Hold Up.
Four years after The Great Train Robbery he founded the film company Essanay with George Spoor (the name comes from their initials, S&A) and in hundreds of shorts he became in effect the first cowboy film star. He went on to write, direct and produce Westerns too. Most of his pictures were one-reel shorts and were not considered (justly) ‘important’ or works of art; they were consumer items to be produced cheaply, seen and then discarded. Most have not survived. He was presented with an honorary Oscar in 1957 and died in 1971 at the age of ninety. Respect!
It is easy for us sophisticated movie-goers to mock The Great Train Robbery and think it crude – it seems prehistoric. The substitution of a dummy for the trainman then thrown from the train, for example, is laughably bad to us now, and the flimsy stage set of the station seems to come from some amateur theatrical production. But we should remember that many who saw it had never seen a motion picture at all. It must have been amazing suddenly to be transported into an imaginary world which seemed so real. The inspired scene of Justus D Barnes firing his pistol into the camera – and thus, it appeared, directly at the audience – was said to have caused people to faint. Exhibitors had the choice of placing it at the start or at the end of the picture.
And of course there was no cinema as an art form. It was a technical advance. Thomas Edison, who was not the easiest man to get on with, was no artist and even distrusted those who were. No one (yet) had pretensions of creating a beautiful or ‘literary’ motion picture. They were too busy photographing a scene as realistically as they could (which to our modern eyes isn’t very, but it was then startling).
Another point worth recalling is that the Wild West was so recent then. Wild West shows were at the height of their popularity (in fact the new movie Westerns would contribute to their rapid decline). Horses and guns and Western clothes were common. Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were still alive (Earp 55 years old and Masterson only 50), Butch and Sundance were robbing banks in South America, Al Jennings was holding up trains in Oklahoma, and in Montana, Gary Cooper was two. The ‘Wild West’ was just yesterday.
The Great Train Robbery was a commercial success on a scale never before seen. It was this as much as any artistic innovations that made it the progenitor of the great genre. Edison and his competitors exploited it for all it was worth, rapidly producing a whole series of ‘Westerns’ such as The Great Bank Robbery, The Bold Bank Robbery, The Hold-Up of the Rocky Mountain Express, and so on. There was even Edison’s The Little Bank Robbery (1906) in which children took the parts and the bandits steal toys and candy. In 1904 the Lubin company made a scene-by-scene copy of The Great Train Robbery and released it with the same title – copyright laws were much laxer then. It reminds me of the spaghetti western boom of the 1960s: a couple of commercially successful movies were followed by a whole glut of knock-off imitations until there seemed to be nothing in Italian movie theaters but Westerns. By 1908 the genre was so well established that distributors’ catalogues listed releases under Drama, Comic and Western.
But just as the spaghettis soon exhausted themselves and already by the early 70s the audiences thought there could be too much of a good thing, so too by 1914 reviewers were complaining that Westerns were tiresome clichés, old hat, a thing of the past. The critics were wrong, of course. Cecil B DeMille directed the first movie version of The Virginian (soon to be reviewed on this blog) in that year. William S Hart was just getting into his stride. Tom Mix was ridin’ the range. Shorts were becoming feature films. People packed the nickelodeons to see them. The celluloid West was only just beginning.
The movie industry itself moved West. The Great Train Robbery and its imitators had been filmed in New Jersey. But soon Tulsa, San Antonio, Prescott, Las Vegas NM, and then Los Angeles became the centers of the industry, and Westerns as subject matter seemed even more natural and logical.
And just as real Western lawmen and outlaws had cashed in on their former glories by appearing in Wild West shows, now they ‘advised’ on or even appeared in Western movies. Wyatt Earp wanted Hart to make a film of his life. Al Jennings starred in four Westerns between 1914 and 1920.
In 1899 Edwin Stanton Porter joined the Edison Manufacturing Company. He rapidly took charge of motion picture production at Edison’s New York studios, operating the camera, directing the actors, and assembling the final print. During the next decade Porter became the most influential film maker in the United States. He was an innovator. For instance, he seems to have invented the dissolve: instead of using abrupt splices or cuts between shots Porter had gradual transitions from one image to another, helping audiences follow complex movement. He has never, though, been thought of as a founding father of film in the way DW Griffith or Thomas H Ince are.
Though uncredited, Porter directed and wrote The Great Train Robbery and with Blair Smith did much of the cinematography and editing (still in its infancy) too. It was a very personal creation. Taking a story so well-known from dime novels and stage melodramas (such as Scott Marble’s The Great Train Robbery of 1896) was an inspired move.
The one-reel film, with a runtime of only twelve minutes, was put together in twenty separate shots. It was so well done that intertitle cards were not needed. The film cuts freely from interiors to exteriors and there is a narrative flow. It was 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. The camera placed on the rear of the tender, the long and smoothly executed panning shot as the bandits escape into the woods, these were a revelation in 1903. It’s still a fun watch even today. Then, it was a sensation. It lasted for years, being shown all over the country.
Although the original negatives of the film are long gone, there are modern prints of good quality and the film is entirely watchable today. There are several versions on YouTube or you can get a DVD, and it’s definitely worth the effort.