Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

The Great Train Robbery, 1903

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1917 words Published: 28th Apr 2017

Reference this

The Great Train Robbery produced by Edwin S. Porter in 1903 is frequently acknowledged as the first narrative film. Porter, who had previously worked for Thomas Edison as a cameraman, takes the plot from a story based on a real train robbery, written by Scott Marble in 1896. To bring it to life in ways the public had never seen before, Porter utilises various new and innovative techniques, of which previous film-makers had never thought of using in the still relatively new process of film-making. Edison’s company, who produced the film declared it ‘absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made’ due to the editing techniques that were totally new to the industry. [1] Eighteen years later, Victor Sjöström produced The Phantom Carriage with Svensk Filmindustri. Sjöström wrote the screenplay, which he adapted from a novel by Selma Lagerlöf, as well as directed and starred in the film that Paul Mayersberg describes as ‘a major departure from his [previous] outdoor dramas’. [2] In The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström’s creative editing style and new film techniques are illustrative of the progress made by film-makers in the time between the two films production, but also of the unique variety of films being made by the Scandinavian film industry in this fast changing and highly inventive period of cinematic history.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

As it is one of the first films to follow an actual narrative and not merely a single shot of a simple, everyday situation such as seen in the earlier works of the Lumièr Brothers, the editing techniques in The Great Train Robbery are limited but highly experimental for the time. The film, most notably, makes use of cutting between two locations with use of a visual match to suggest one is happening after the other. [3] This is demonstrated between shot seven and eight where in the former, the train is seen moving on the tracks away from the camera, then in the next it is seen moving in the same direction and at the same angle to the camera. The idea is simple, and may seem obvious to modern viewers who are use to these cinematic conventions, but it demonstrates how editing is being manipulated in order to form a linear narrative that would be new to viewers of the time. We also see in this film the beginnings of the creation of a parallel narrative; the film begins in a telegraph office where a worker is shot and tied up, the narrative moves on from here until shot ten when we return back to the telegraph office with the man still tied on the floor. The fact that the set up is exactly the same as where it was left off in the first shot, despite the plot moving on is indicative that the events that occur in shot ten are happening at the same time as the previous action we have seen is. This idea is consummated with the telegraph workers entrance in the dance hall in shot eleven, as it would obviously have taken some time for him to reach this new location, in which time the previous events could have run their course and in the next shot, number twelve, the two narratives are thus able to meet up as the men at the dance chase the bandits through the woods.

Focusing on how editing functions in The Phantom Carriage, a scene which demonstrates Sjöström’s more sophisticated style comes early on in the film, around five minutes in. Salvation Army Sister, Edit, pleads on her deathbed to see David Holm, an alcoholic of whom she cared for in the past. She sends a friend she met whilst working for the Salvation Army to find him; she and another friend of Edit’s, Gustafsson, part ways to cover more ground in their search for Holm. The sequence that follows watches both the Salvation Army friend and Gustafsson in the two separate locations they go to in their searches which, though similar to the shots explained above in The Great Train Robbery sequence, is pulled off more sophisticatedly in The Phantom Carriage sequence. [4] 

First the camera, and thus the viewer, follow the female friend to the dilapidated home of Holm, his wife and two children. As the friend arrives at the door to the house, Sjöström chooses to enclose the shot in a circular black frame. The edge is sharp – not fading out like the vignette effect which he utilises later on – and as the bottom third of the circular frame is cut off out of shot, it could be reminiscent of the frame that looking through a key hole would produce to the eye. This effect creates the feeling of the viewer as a voyeur; the viewer has not been invited to look, but is seeing her unnoticed as she unlocks the door. Later in the sequence, after shot thirteen where the friend comforts Anna, Sjöström cuts to the path of Gustafsson that runs parallel to this short sequence. The viewer sees him enter a bar and, presumably, since there are no inter-titles in this sequence, ask the staff about finding Holm. A few shots in however, the scene cuts back to the first location and the narrative continues from the point it left off, with the friend putting her coat around Anna. We are taken back to the first narrative jut for this single shot before being brought back again to the second, for four shots, and once again cut back for a single shot of the first. These extreme cuts tell us that the two separate sequences are happening at the same time. The fact they go back and forth in rapid succession is makes it more obvious or understandable than the occurrence of parallel narratives in The Great Train Robbery where it only cuts back once.

One of the most significant differences in the editing of the two films is the scale of the shots. Porter tends to have the camera further away from his subject so that a large area and all the action can be seen at once, whereas Sjöström chooses to vary the shots, some establishing the room and others close-ups of characters reactions and actions. Porter’s shots are also lengthier, so we see, for example, the whole sequence of the robbers hiding and waiting for the train in shot two. This may have a negative effect on the viewers understanding of the narrative. The closer shots and varied cutting of the The Phantom Carriage sequence allows the viewer to feel like they are in the midst of the story, seeing little detail rather than further away simply watching it unfold. After the framed shot outside the door, the viewer is let inside the room and given a full view of it, as is standard with many films of the time. This master shot allows the viewer to get a feel for the landscape of the scene, and gain an understanding of the surroundings, which is necessary in order for the viewer to [3] keep up with Sjöström’s relatively liberal use of cutting that contrasts greatly to Porter’s extended shots. In this first interior set up, the friend is seen looking toward the front, right corner of the room. In the next shot Sjöström cuts so that the camera faces the direction the friend has just faced, therefore we are able to see what she see’s, which is the two children asleep in a bed on the floor. This is known as an eyeline match where the angle of the camera matches the eyeline of the person in the previous shot. A similar cutting technique occurs in shots four to nine, where axis cuts (where the position of the camera moves in each shot so it looks back on itself on a 180 degree plane) go back and forth between the friend and Holm’s wife Anna’s back, who is sat in the corner of the room.

These are examples of the more sophisticated editing techniques that can greatly enhance the viewers understanding of the narrative; firstly because, due to the potentiality for more close-ups, the viewer can grasp who the characters are and be more aware of their emotions displayed by their faces and what they are doing. This insight is lost slightly in the long shots of The Great Train Robbery which don’t bring the viewer close enough to the action to distinguish characters or even what exactly they are doing; for example in the mail carriage shot (set up C), one robber seems to take something, or put something into the killed workers pocket; what exactly he does we cannot know as we are too far away to see3. These cutting techniques can allow the viewer to get a grip on the characters position in the room and understand who it may be their emotions are directed at as well. Such methods also enhance the aesthetic look of the sequence, rather than simply seeing the whole scene unfold from the same far off angle that is seen in The Great Train Robbery.

The fast cutting used in The Phantom Carriage also effects the tone or atmosphere of the scene which in turn contributes to the way the viewer interprets the narrative. Tension is built up in the scene as the viewer see some part of the action and then is cut away to see a characters reaction to this. Alternatively though, the more drawn-out shots of the film and the lengthy shots in The Great [4] Train Robbery could also create a feeling of tension or suspense in the way the viewer is able to see all the action at once where sometimes the characters themselves cannot. An example of this effect is seen in shot thirteen of The Great Train Robbery, the bandits go through their loot as only the camera sees their pursuers creeping up on them from behind. In The Phantom Carriage, in the scenes in which the ghostly carriage of death comes into shot, tension is created by its slow, suspenseful motion across the screen; this could be due to the fact the viewer knows its destination will be someone who has recently died, and its slow pace signifies an unease in its path to the dead.

-1711 words

excerpts from sources to back up/contrast to points = integrate into above paragraphs -100

add in 150 about interior/exteriors

conclusion -100


‘Victor Sjöström’, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/547219/Victor-Sjostrom [accessed 18.03.13].

Cook, David A. and Sklar, Robert. ‘Edwin S. Porter’, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/471087/Edwin-S-Porter [accessed 18.03.13].

Dirks, Tim. ‘The Great Train Robbery (1903)’ at http://www.filmsite.org/grea.html [accessed 18.03.13].

Mayersberg, Paul. ‘Phantom Forms: The Phantom Carriage’, on The Criterion Collection at http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2000-phantom-forms-the-phantom-carriage [accessed 16.03.13].

Musser, Charles. ‘Moving towards fictional narratives: story films become the dominant product, 1903-1907’ in Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer (ed.) The Silent Cinema Reader. London: Routledge, 2003.


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: