Edwin S. Porter | The Great Train Robbery

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Edwin S. Porter

Edwin S. Porter was a pioneer American film director.

The Great Train Robbery

Influence on Crime Films and Feuillade

Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) is often thought of as a film that launched the Western genre. This is certainly an important aspect of it. But it is also a crime story, showing a robbery and the tracking down of the crooks. It seems to be an influence on crime dramas to come.

The Great Train Robbery reminds one of Louis Feuillade's subsequent work in the thriller genre. Partly this is Porter's expertise in depth staging. Partly it is subject matter. Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915) has train scenes, just as in this film. The chase through the forest recalls the equally wooded country scenery in later parts of Les Vampires. In both films, it is the criminals who flee through the countryside.

The scenes of the Vampire gang dancing recall the party in this film. Both show a lot of rough characters having an exuberant celebration. There is a communal feel to both dances, and a sense that when the armed characters aren't working, that they love to relax with their women folk. In both films, we feel that we are in a subculture, one that has its own social rituals, rituals that both mirror and surrealistically mock those of society at large.

Both films show in detail gangs of identically dressed menacing figures ambushing and robbing unsuspecting respectable people. Porter's point of view is with the robbers, just as Feuillade's often is. These scenes are often quite disquieting, showing conventional life suddenly and unexpectedly disrupted by criminals. This is a surrealistic effect in both directors. Porter's film suggests that disaster can suddenly come to everyday life, a frightening truth. Both Porter's and Feuillade's gangs are quite murderous, having little scruple in taking life. The scene where the robbers assemble the passengers from the train and rob them of their valuables anticipates Chapter 5 of Les Vampires, where the party goers are systematically robbed as a group.

Some of the similarities between Porter and Feuillade might be purely technological. Both films combine patently artificial interior sets with highly authentic looking outdoor scenes. This is perhaps just a common feature of films of the era. Still, both directors' interiors seem dream like, as do their films as a whole.

Both films have precocious small children, who aid the good guy grown-ups in the movie. The children act surprisingly adult-like in both films.

People are always climbing over things in both directors. In Porter, this is the robbers climbing the sides of train cars, and standing on top of them. In Feuillade, it is criminals climbing the sides of buildings, and walking on roofs, a more elaborate effect than in Porter. In both films, the climbing is disorienting, a surrealistic change from daily life. It also looks dangerous, and thrilling.

The criminal gangs in both films launch complex crime schemes. These are unified, multi-stage processes, designed to achieve a single goal. Clearly they are planned out in advance. They take up an entire episode or sequence. The whole first section of Porter's film is such a unified scheme. The robbers are not acting at random; everything they do is part of a larger plan. In both filmmakers, the scheme often involves with intervening in a respectable process of middle-class life, and derailing it. In Feuillade, this can be a bank messager's tasks or a wedding party. In Porter's film, it is the operation of the train. This systematic disruption of daily reality is quite frightening. It has a surrealistic quality: someone out to systematically change the texture and pattern of daily life.

There are many difference between Porter and Feuillade. Porter's film has no individual characters, to speak of. There are gang members on the one hand, and the posse on the other. In Feuillade, there are many vivid characters on both sides of the law.


The Great Train Robbery has sophisticated panning shots. The pans seem a bit wobbly. But otherwise they function much like pans in later film. The pan left to the hillside, then panning down the side, seems especially complex and sophisticated. Porter sometimes pans to include new plot elements. For example, after the men cross the stream, Porter pans left to their horses, which they mount. The pan reveals this new element, and advances the story. Other pans seem simply to focus attention. Near the start of the film, after the robbers emerge from their hiding place at screen left and board the train on screen right, Porter pans over to the right, apparently to concentrate the action there.