The Wild West genre fascinated American audiences for decades. Actors portraying myths and legends of the old West became iconic figures in their own right. Therefore, it is a great pleasure to simultaneously present The Great Train Robbery as the earliest example of American cinema on this list and the first Western.
There is some disagreement to this claim. Either the picture is not the first due to earlier ‘Western Scenes’ or it is not a classic Western representation. In some respects, this may be true. The Great Train Robbery does not necessarily tick all of the boxes of a Western, but like film noir it is impossible to dismantle a genre into specific moments and ultimately generalise a filmography. Instead, The Great Train Robbery encapsulates a genuine mood of the West with blood, explosions, daring robberies and an ultimate morality in the end. Director Edwin S. Porter certainly relishes in the freedom of depiction (The Hays Code, a strict set of guidelines on cinematic decency, did not exist until 1930). Porter’s camera never shies away from the startling brutality of a bandit shooting innocents or bludgeoning railway workers. Porter creates a refreshingly brutal introduction to the Wild West.
It is as futile to criticise a picture over a century old as it is to criticise a child learning to walk. The camera is static, the sets appear like a stage and the acting is theatrical. These faults were simply the norm. The transition from stage to screen was merely beginning. However, director Edwin S Porters expand his world dramatically from limitation with inspiration from Méliès. The sets enjoy new life thanks to the matte shot (exposing parts of the frame, re-winding the stock and exposing only the unexposed part. Creates one image made of several). Trains pass windows, the New Jersey forests speed by during a shootout and each frame is lifted from stasis to life.
The life of the frame is only furthered by the narrative construction. Within a short twelve minute run time, The Great Train Robbery presents an entire story from hostage taking to the climatic shootout, and even incorporates some ‘back at the ranch’ moments. All of this is clear despite not featuring a single title card. The Great Train Robbery is a testament to the power of staging and the wordless language of cinema.
The Western genre owes a great debt to The Great Train Robbery for exploring the new frontier.
The final shot existing far outside the narrative space and time. The ultimate full stop to a picture. A bandit (Justus D. Barnes), the visual epitome of the rough and tough Western thief, burns holes through the camera with his eyes before drawing a revolver and blowing us away. During the initial distribution, a note stated this shot may be placed at the beginning or at the end. All known prints placed it as the final, enduring image of the West.
Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuto7qWrplc