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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Free Film Friday – The Great Train Robbery

My name is Michael Dodd and I believe that cinema is truly magical. This is going to sound so corny but I just can’t get enough of it. It is a journey, an escape into a whole other world for an all too brief couple of hours that leaves me feeling exhilarated in a way that no other activity can manage. It is my pastime, my passion, and in following that passion I have spent a lot of money. Tickets to see a big screen showing, sometimes in 3D, as well as a vast collection of DVDs have made this one of my most expensive hobbies. But a short time ago I began life as a film reviewer, and in doing so I gained access to that glorious golden nugget known as the free screener. Every week another slice of celluloid adventure is delivered to my door completely free of charge, and it’s a blast it really is.

Great Train Robbery Poster

But lately I have been wondering why I felt such a rush at getting my hands on free movies. It is true that getting to discuss them and have people read my opinions is a thrill, but the joy of seeing a film that I didn’t have to pay for is actually nothing new to me. Being the intense film geek that I am I have amassed a number of ways of getting my fix, and truth be told there are hundreds and hundreds of movies available to watch freely on the internet, and I’m not talking about illegal downloads.

I speak of course of public domain films, many of them silent classics, not to mention a few forgotten gems from the 1930s to the 1950s. As well as this there are also a lot of independently made contemporary films whose creators have allowed to be released to the public completely free of charge. This is a veritable cinematic treasure trove, and if there is one thing an explorer needs when looking for treasure it is a guide. So I asked the exceptionally charming people at Geek Pride if they would mind playing host to a weekly recommendation of a free piece of cinema, and it makes me very happy to say that they welcomed the idea with open arms. Welcome to Free Film Friday, your guide to the best in free cinema that is always only a click of the mouse away!

For our first look at the world of readily available cinema I thought why not start at the very beginning with a film that not only marked the origins of a genre, a whole host of tropes and a finale that has been imitated countless times, but really the beginnings of Hollywood movies as we know them today. The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903 and today you can see the full near thirteen minutes of it on YouTube. The plot is simple, a group of bandits hold up a train and make off with a substantial amount of loot before engaging in a pitched gun battle with the law. As you may have guessed this is the first Western, and the train robbers are outlaw bandits in cowboy hats pursued by badge-wearing sheriffs carrying six-shooters.

Great Train Robbery SceneThere are a lot of charming aspects to this brief piece of history. Overacting abounds as exaggerated actions are employed in place of dialogue, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the way victims of fatal gunshots fall in an almost pirouette to the floor. Bear in mind that these among the very first on-screen deaths, how silly it looks and yet how humorously befitting the tone of the film. What I love is the grandiosity of the picture. In the years prior to this the Lumière brothers had experimented in the earliest forms of film-making by simply pointing a camera at everyday things like a train pulling into a station or children playing in a garden. When Thomas Edison decided to put his name behind the first American film with a plot he could have gone for the mundane. He could have told a simple story of a man coming home from work, or a young couple going on a date, but instead he opted for a good old fashioned outlaw tale with all guns blazing, setting the stage for the epics of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and countless others who followed.

The final shot of the film is an echo of the aforementioned Lumière train. When theatre audiences saw a train coming towards them on the big screen they panicked and dove out of its way. Similarly, when a stern-faced cowboy points his gun at the camera and squeezes off a few shots, there are stories of the movie-going public ducking for cover. If you like your trivia, you may be interested in the fact that numerous great directors have paid homage to this scene, including Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas and Ridley Scott in American Gangster. It’s a little like the Odessa Staircase sequence from The Battleship Potemkin, but more on that another time…

Goodfellas Great Train Robbery

All in all this is one of the most noteworthy YouTube videos you could hope to see. In terms of film-making tropes this is right up there with The Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, laying the foundation for just about everything that followed in Hollywood cinema. A genuine collector’s item and a must see for film geeks everywhere.

Michael Dodd
Michael Doddhttps://www.geek-pride.co.uk
Prolific writer attempting to slowly take over the internet through various explorations of cinema, heavy music and everything in between.

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