Monday, December 17, 2012

The Train Wreckers - 1905

Country: United States
Language: English (intertitles)
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Stars: Gilbert M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson
Release Date: 27 November 1905 (USA)
Also known as: Train Wreckers (USA)
Production Co: Edison Manufacturing Company
Runtime: 11 min
Sound Mix: Silent
Color: Black and White
Plot Keywords: Train | Gunfight | Rescued By Dog | Damsel In Distress | Chase  | Last Second Rescue | Bound And Gagged | Heroine
Genres: Short | Action | Drama
A romance between a railroad engineer and the switchman's daughter is nearly ruined by train wreckers who knock out the girl and leave her on the tracks to be run over. The engineer perches on the engine's cow catcher and rescues the girl.
One of the pleasures of viewing these early films is to witness the invention and maturation of genres, formulas and some of the most common movie clichés and conventions. This Edison picture, 'Train Wreckers' made by prolific filmmakers Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon, displays many elements of what later became standards of action films, including the last-minute rescue shorts made by D.W. Griffith. The female lead and the use of a train, in addition to the rescues and action, seem especially to be precursors to Griffith's 'The Girl and Her Trust' (1912).
In the 16-shots of 'Train Wreckers', the female lead goes from damsel-in-distress to heroine and back to damsel-in-distress as she has a series of encounters with a gang, who for some unexplained reason are trying to derail a train. She's bound and gagged to a tree, where she is rescued by her dog. Porter and McCutcheon may have been influenced here by 'Rescued by Rover', which was released earlier in 1905. Later, our hero is left for dead on the tracks, only to be saved by the filmmakers' use of a dummy and splice. There's quite a lot of action packed into one reel, including two last-minute rescues from disaster, a chase and a gunfight. There are even the most basic and brief crosscuts (Shot A cuts to Shot B cuts back to Shot A), which is something Porter had done before at Edison, but he doesn't seem to have developed it beyond the simplest forms of crosscutting in his later work. Other early Nickelodeon fare, such as Vitagraph's suspenseful 'The 100 to One Shot; or a Run of Luck' (1905/06) or 'The Mill Girl' (1907), in addition to Griffith's films, would feature much quicker and more extensive editing. 'Train Wreckers' also breaks the axis of action rule a few times, switching the directions of action between shots (train goes right in one shot and goes left in another).
There must have been too much going on for the one-reel standard to allow the filmmakers to explain every detail, because there are a few outstanding unexplained features here. Why does the heroine walk through the woods? Where is she going? Why does she walk on the railroad tracks? Why can't the criminals kill an unprotected man on the front of a train when they're firing bullets at him from only a few feet away? Are they anarchists—why are they trying to wreck the train? Perhaps Edison's catalogue gave a description to these finer points, but with the beginning of nickelodeons, self-contained narratives were becoming required, as many exhibitors no longer were willing to or able to pay lecturers to elaborate on films for audiences—which was customary in early cinema. Nevertheless, 'Train Wreckers' is one of the better-made films I've seen from its time. The filmmakers made great use of the locations, created a good pacing with plenty of interest going on. In addition to the action, the film even takes a few early scenes for peaceful exposition, introducing the heroine's sweetheart and life around the trains. There's an exceptionally well-composed shot through a window of a train arriving at the station. The film was one of Edison's best sellers between 1905-1906, selling 157 prints (Musser, "Before the Nickelodeon").
Edison: The Invention of the Movies (2005) (Video) - The entire film is included on the DVD

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