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Watch The Great Train Robbery and assess what audiences at that time would’ve found most fascinating about it, especially considering that movies as we know them were still a long way in the future and the media wasn’t quite so powerful.

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Marcella Garber, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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bookB.A. from Wichita State University

bookM.A. from Wichita State University


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I am assuming you mean the earliest version of The Great Train Robbery, filmed in 1903 for Edison's film studios on the East Coast. This film is in the public domain—no one has copyright to it anymore—so you can watch the whole, preserved film on YouTube, courtesy of the Library of Congress, and look for characteristics that you think audiences of the time might have been fascinated by.

A few things to keep in mind for this early point in film history is that films were very short—often two stories to one reel (ten to fifteen minutes of footage). The running time of The Great Train Robbery at over 13 minutes would have seemed as full and complete as a feature film does to us today. The black and white film and lack of sound weren't unusual; sound wasn't common in films for another twenty-five years, and color for even longer. Some portions of The Great Train Robbery were hand colored, painted frame-by-frame by technicians, and this would have been very eye-catching to film audiences at the time.

The film's use of a moving camera and quick cuts were also innovative. When you watch The Great Train Robbery, notice how much the camera pans and moves to capture the action. And of course, the ending is the most famous moment of all! When a bandit fires a gun directly at the screen, the audience is pulled into the story in a way that's often been imitated in the nearly 120 years since.

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