By Christine Bunish
Issue: June 1, 2003

Thomas Edison's The Great Train Robbery

Rick Altman: "Today we take editing for granted, treating it as the juxtaposition of two independent shots." Until The Great Train Robbery, cutaways were considered intrusive.
IOWA CITY, IA - A century ago, film editing as we've come to know it made its debut in The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison's The Edison Company.

Although moving pictures had been entertaining audiences for almost a decade, they consisted either of uncut shots (a kiss, a gardener squirted by his own hose, a train arriving in a station), shots with in-camera edits or a series of tableau-style shots recording action on a proscenium-like set.

"Often a shot would begin with no characters or with characters at rest. Something would happen, they'd go about their business and when they exited the 'stage,' the shot was completed," explains Rick Altman, professor of cinema and comparative literature at the University of Iowa.

At the turn of the last century most movies were shown between live acts of Vaudeville. "What you have to understand about this period is the strong domination of the theater as a mode of presentation," Altman says. Although they were of short duration, most movies were shot in separate parts, which exhibitors could show individually or "edit" together. Director James White's 1899 film for Edison, Love & War, had six parts, each just over one minute long and featuring a song. Exhibitors could acquire the entire film or a portion at a time.

In Life Of An American Fireman, released before The Great Train Robbery in 1903, Porter edited shots together but still followed action from start to completion. Sometimes scenes, such as the rescue of a fire victim seen from inside and outside a building, were cut together from individual shots but they still portrayed completed action and didn't cut away to different actions.

But The Great Train Robbery, which ran for 12 minutes at 16 fps, was conceived as an uninterrupted narrative, a single attraction that exhibitors would not show in portions. In 14 scenes lensed in Essex County, NJ, Porter told the Wild West tale of bandits holding up a mail train, robbing its passengers and heading for the hills.

Editing's genesis

Porter constantly cut away from incomplete action to heighten the drama and show audiences something new. After the bandits robbed the train and fled, Porter cut to the telegraph office which viewers had seen before. There, the bound and gagged telegraph operator managed to send a request for help before his little daughter entered the office and cut his ropes. He rushed out of the room. Porter then cut to the dance hall whose patrons were unaware of what's transpired until the frantic telegraph operator appeared. A posse was raised, pursued the desperadoes and a climactic gunfight ensued.

"The Great Train Robbery deserves to be thought of in terms of editing and scripting advances," says Altman. "Porter gave a great deal of thought to how the sections would fit together.

"Today we take editing for granted, treating it as the juxtaposition of two separate and independent shots. Until The Great Train Robbery, cutaways were considered intrusions, robbing the audience of the chance to see the continuation of a scene they had already started. Porter's creative use of the cutaway is an important innovation because it reverses the stage situation where scenes always played to the end."

Cutting away from incomplete action provided "a new source of suspense quite different from stage suspense," Altman points out. "You've created a narrative irony rarely present in previous films. Now the spectator knows something the characters don't. Porter's editing practices come in part from the filmmaker's faith in the ability of the audience to understand things without giving them the whole story."

Live sound

Although The Great Train Robbery was a silent film, it was not without sound. But it wasn't accompanied by the continuous, often melodramatic, piano or organ music we tend to associate with silent pictures. That didn't become standard until the early teens.

Instead, sound "came out of the stage practice of providing sound effects and music for every visible sound source," explains Altman, author of the forthcoming book, Silent Film Sound (Columbia University Press). The Great Train Robbery offered "lots and lots of possibilities for a completely realistic picture. Realism was extremely important to audiences and Vaudeville managers. The films people liked best were those that were realistic."

No directive was issued by Porter to theater owners to assure consistency of sound. Interpretation varied from place to place although certain sounds and sound effects were obvious: the train chugging down the tracks, the train whistle and bell, simulated gun shots. Music seen on screen, as in the dance hall sequence, was duplicated by the Vaudeville pianist or orchestra.

Although it was once believed that editorial cuts would bewilder and distract audiences, Porter's editing techniques were quickly absorbed by audiences - who couldn't get enough of moving pictures - and adopted by other filmmakers. "Whether movies were showing in Vaudeville houses or storefront theaters, people came back at least on a weekly basis," Altman notes. "People got a lot of practice watching movies. If they were surprised by something the first time they saw it, they weren't surprised long."

The importance of The Great Train Robbery isn't so much as "an absolute first" for film editing, Altman says. "More significant is that the movie was one of the film industry's first blockbusters. Popular for years, The Great Train Robbery was important not so much for inventing new techniques, but for disseminating them."