The Great Train Robbery (1903)

I have two copies of this now, one in the Edison box set I reviewed nearly three years ago, and one in the BFI’s Primitives and Pioneers collection… I think they’re both from the same print, but their respective contexts are markedly different. I said when I reviewed the Edison box that when Great Train Robbery appears near the end of the first disc, it felt as if it were the triumphant culmination of the decade of experiment that preceded it (as represented on that disc, at any rate); it can be hard to shake that feeling of “everything before x was leading up to x, and x was a natural outcome” sometimes, even though there’s probably nothing natural about it really (as I recall Edgar Morin saying, there was indeed no reason for the cinematograph itself to have ever become a mass entertainment medium). On the BFI disc, though, it’s in a much wider context, it’s not just surrounded by Edison productions, it’s up against Lumière, George Smith, Hepworth, Pathé… in short, it feels more like just one of a number of highlights of early cinema rather than the highlight of that first decade. It’s still great, of course; though adapted from a stage melodrama (over which it no doubt had a considerable advantage because of being able to use a real train and actual locations), it kind of looks forward at least a few years in film history, not just in the way it pioneers a genre (the western) and any number of other crime narratives, but also in its more sophisticated storytelling (plus it anticipates the later standardisation of the one-reel film); though its “grammar” is perhaps limited, the film is still more about telling its story without getting caught up in its own “hot damn look at the things I can do” technological jollies Méliès’ films revel in by comparison. Another understandable popular hit, and understandably still famous now…

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