The Great Train Robbery
The Great Train Robbery (1903) is considered the first narrative film – that is, it’s the first time filmmakers edited together a number of shots and scenes to tell a story. With the exception of some documentaries, films typically tell a story. The classic films of Hollywood were narrative films. All the films we see in this class will be narrative films. So it is important to note the first one.
Tom Dirks, at filmsite, gives us the details:
One of the milestones in film history was the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter – a former Thomas Edison cameraman. It was a primitive one-reeler action picture, about 10 minutes long, with 14-scenes, filmed in November 1903 – not in the western expanse of Wyoming but on the East Coast in various locales in New Jersey (at Edison’s New York studio, at Essex County Park in New Jersey, and along the Lackawanna railroad).
Arguably, the American inventor Thomas Edison was the father of motion pictures, with his invention of the kinetoscope and the kinetograph in the 1890s. You can see some of his early films at a Library of Congress website. That includes The Great Train Robbery, which was a departure for the Edison studios, since, at twelve minutes or so, it was more than twice as long as most of Edison’s early films.
The film was based on a 1896 story by Scott Marble and used the same title as a popular stage drama (Dirks). It was the most popular and commercially successful film of the early silent era, and established that film could be a commercially-viable medium.
Dirks describes the film’s many technical innovations:
The film used a number of innovative techniques, many of them for the first time, including parallel editing, minor camera movement, location shooting and less stage-bound camera placement. Jump-cuts or cross-cuts were a new, sophisticated editing technique, showing two separate lines of action or events happening continuously at identical times but in different places.
The action of each scene is told with only one shot. Almost every shot is a static, long shot, confining the action to the perspective of the camera at eye level. Tension and excitement is achieved by moving the players, rather than moving the camera angles.
Dirks goes into some detail describing the fourteen scenes in the film. But I should note that, though the film is daring in its editing, it does not use “cross-cuts,” despite what Dirks says. Cross-cut editing usually means cutting back and forth between two parallel scenes, usually happening at the same time but in different places. By contrast, The Great Train Robbery merely cuts different, complete scenes together, in order to build suspense. (A good example of true cross-cutting would be the scene in The Pale Face where the film cuts back and forth from the Indians attacking the cabin to Friendless, in the cabin, constructing a fire-proof asbestos suit).
The film is famous for its final shot of an outlaw pointing a gun at the audience and firing. Directly engaging the camera in this way is generally frowned upon in narrative films, since it ruins the illusion that the viewer is actually in the world of the film. Because it reminds the viewer that he or she is watching a film, such shots are often called “self-conscious” or “self-reflexive.” As we will see later in the semester when we view Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, filmmakers of the French New Wave were notorious for their self-reflexive films. Current, “postmodern” films (like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation), are also often self-reflexive.
Dirks asserts that the final shot of The Great Train Robbery has more to do with selling tickets than indulging in an aesthetic trend that was still fifty years away.
The film closes with a medium shot close-up of the bandit chief (with green-tinted shirt and red-tinted kerchief in some versions) (George Barnes) with his hat pushed back on his head. He points and shoots his revolver point-blank, directly into the camera (and, of course, at the audience). This caused a tremendously terrifying sensation at the time. This final punch to the film was totally irrelevant to the plot. Theater managers were free to either begin or end the picture with this scene — a promotional gimmick – selecting it as either a prologue or epilogue.
The Pale Face
The Pale Face was one of Keaton’s shorts. Like The Great Train Robbery, The Pale Face is a film western, but made at a time when many of the conventions of the Western film genre had not yet been established in Hollywood. Instead, the film borrows from the conventions of the stage drama and the “Wild West Show.” (For a good example of the latter, see the “sham battle” at the Pan-American Exposition of 1893, filmed by the Edison studios.)
What I mean is that the film Western had not yet become mythic; it still presented cowboys and Indians in relatively realistic terms.
For instance, the Indians in The Pale Face are not initially hell-bent on destruction. According to the title card, they are living in peace. What this really means is that they have been pacified. This was the one of the great missions of the nineteenth century in America: to pacify (or eliminate) Native American tribes, as part of the larger mission of “manifest destiny,” or (white) westward expansion.
“Living in peace” in The Pale Face means that the Indians are living peaceably on their reservation, and they are free to sit there all day and smoke their pipes. This is what we see when we are first introduced to an Indian in the film. They are also free to spit all they want and live in squalor, which this shot also suggests. This is an unromantic, realistic portrait of an Indian.
At the same time, however, the Indian is not dressed like a west-coast Indian. With a feathered head-dress, he is dressed like a Plains Indian. Similarly, Native Americans in California did not live in teepees, as we see in the film; they lived in hogans. It was the Plains Indian that was most prevalent in popular culture, in stage dramas and Wild West Shows, and so on film they stand for all Indians, erasing the important distinctions between the many Indian tribes in America. What makes all this ironic, and very sad, is that there were very few Indians in California when The Pale Face was made. Due to disease and other factors, over the course of the nineteenth century Indian tribes in California lost 90% of their population.
This left them vulnerable to unscrupulous oil barons, as we see in the film. This is another realistic aspect of Indian life in California, which was experiencing an oil boom in the early twentieth century. “Robber barons” gaining land titles via extortion and violence was also a realistic aspect of Indian life in California. Neither the oil (standing in for industrialism) nor the extortion of Indians, is something seen in most classical Hollywood films.
But a white man coming to the aid of victimized Indians was not that realistic. This does, however, suggest that Keaton was trying to make some kind of statement. Dan Callahan asserts that
Social issues are often broached, uncertainly but boldly. In The Paleface (1921), he wanders onto an Indian reservation with a butterfly net. When tied to a stake and set on fire, he tries to put out the blaze with a few phlegmatic birthday candle blows. Impressed by his tact, the Chief makes him a member and he soon joins them in a violent fight for their land.
To be sure, the film also makes fun of Indians. They become a murderous band at the drop of a hat, they love their war dance, waving their tomahawks and itching to scalp white people and other Indians. Again, many of these things – like the war dance, the tomahawk, and scalping – were more characteristic of Plains Indians than those on the west coast of the continent. Keaton makes fun of the Indians’ war rituals, showing them to be ridiculous, mostly by attempting them himself.
In the scene where the Indians invade the office of the oil company – which in itself is a brilliant piece of non-violent direct action, or “street theater” – Keaton uses the tomahawk to direct the war dance as if he were directing a symphony orchestra. Then he tries to scalp an oil man only to find that the man is “pre-scalped”: he wears a toupee (a wig).
Though there is something of a social statement in the film, it’s obvious that Keaton’s main purpose was to make the audience laugh. There are many ironic reversals (characters exchanging clothes, etc.), and much physical, slapstick comedy. There is also quite a bit of Keaton’s ingenuity on display. The best example would be the scene where Keaton finds some fire-proof asbestos in a cabin and uses it to make a suit that he can wear while he’s being burned at the stake by the Indians. This gives the illusion that he is impervious to the flames, which enables him to gain the respect of the tribe. More so than the other silent film clowns, Keaton showed himself to be enamored of technology and technique, creating gadgets to get him out of fixes. He was the MacGyver of his day.
Go West is one of Keaton’s better feature-length films. Like the other two films discussed in this entry, Go West is best described as an early silent film Western. However, instead of focusing on cowboys and Indians, it deals with the cattle drive – another plot common to film Westerns, and made mythical in classical Hollywood film Westerns like Howard Hawk’s Red River.
Keaton does not make the cattle drive mythical. His treatment is realistic. Instead of having cowboys drive a cattle herd hundreds of miles over unforgiving terrain, facing down marauding Indians and outlaws, the cowboys in Go West take them to the train to be transported to the closest stock yard. The conflict here is that a neighboring rancher, who is holding out for a higher price, vows to stop the cattle drive. As we see in the film, Keaton saves the day, hopping aboard the runaway train and riding it into Los Angeles, where he drives the cattle through the city streets to the stockyard.
But before getting to that point, Keaton’s character, Friendless, goes west, following the call of Horace Greeley, who famously said “Go west, young man.” Greeley urged the young to migrate and settle westward, as part of “manifest destiny.” Thus Greeley helped establish the myth of white supremacy in North America, which led to Indians being slaughtered and/or sequestered on reservations.
In Go West, Keaton undermines and makes fun of such myths. He is a white man in the West and he’s a doofus – or what would have been called a “dude” at that time. He can’t handle a gun, a horse, or even a cow. He uses his east-coast ingenuity, his ability to use technology and technique to solve everyday problems, to make up for his lack of cowboy know-how.
In film Westerns, there is often a conflict between the old, corrupt, industrialized east coast of the United States, and the new, innocent, rural west coast, and we see that in Go West. The film might be called a film Eastern as much as a film Western. He goes to New York City before he goes out west. In the big city, Friendless is as friendless as ever, as he gets jostled and trampled by the legendary New York City street traffic. He despairs of the city and, in a rail yard, decides to go west. He needs the freedom of the great outdoors, the “open spaces” of the western prairies.
Friendless gets his revenge of the city at the end of the film, when he drives the cattle through the streets of Los Angeles, scaring the city people and getting them to do silly things to escape the cattle. The streets of Los Angeles look suspiciously like the sidewalks of New York, with organ grinders and vegetable carts overseen by Hasidic Jews. Keaton here throws together two very different social worlds, eastern urban and western rural, and two very different film genres, the urban drama and the western cowboy tale. By putting them together, Keaton highlights the differences and similarities between them. He also produces a lot of laughs; anthropology is not his primary concern.
Recall how Friendless is inspired to go west. He finds what is clearly a ladies purse and looks through it for money. Instead, he finds a tiny “ladies” gun. A moment later he is visited by the ghost of Horace Greeley, and his call to “Go west, young man.” It is no accident that the film is edited in this way. The gun evokes the “wild” West, with settlement and westward expansion. The gun, in a sense, tells Friendless what he must do. He must go to where men in the saddle live according to the ethic of the gun; like a knight errant, he must use violence to settle the wilderness and (though it is not made explicit) pacify the Indians.
But the fact that Keaton’s gun is a “ladies” gun mocks the entire enterprise. Though he “draws” his toy gun in the film, he generally makes do without a gun in thwarting the outlaws, getting the cattle to market, and winning the girl – who in this case is Brown Eyes, a cow.
In his non-interest in girls, and his cluelessness in regards to guns and the macho rituals that go along with it, Keaton introduces into Go West one of his favorite themes: threatened masculinity. (See the discussion of this topic in Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., in chapter three of your textbook). But it’s not a matter of Friendless being a wimp; rather, he is defined by the masculine ideal of the industrial East, rather than the rural West. He defines himself by what he creates, rather than what he destroys – in the name of westward expansion, or “civilization.”
There is, of course, plenty of slapstick humor in the film. Keaton “milks” his helplessness and naiveté for all the laughs he can get. The cattle-drive conflict and the threadbare romance are merely pretexts for comedy.
However, it isn’t just physical comedy. There is a little bit of what I would call “self-reflexive” comedy in Go West. An example would be during the card game when, after Friendless catches another cowboy cheating and has a gun drawn on him. The cowboy, after drawing the gun, says “When you say that, SMILE.” Callahan explains: “In a defining moment here, during a game of cards, a gunslinger commands, ‘When you say that, smile!’ Buster cannot, of course, comply, though he does force the ends of his mouth up with his fingers, a sweet nod to Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms.” But the joke goes beyond this: Keaton’s “stone face” was famous, it was part of his “brand” as a film star. The scene is self-reflexive because Keaton is winking a the audience, not only reminding the viewer that he or she is watching a film, but making a joke about his own movie persona, hoping that the audience will get it.
If you didn’t get it, don’t worry. In this course, by the end of the semester, you will be able to catch a lot of things in films you have and haven’t seen. That, after all, is a big part of the fun.
University of Maryland
* * *
Dan Callahan. “Buster Keaton.” Senses of Cinema. October 2002.
Tom Dirks. “Filmsite Movie Review: The Great Train Robbery.” filmsite.