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Category:    Home > Reviews > Western > Gangster > Silent > Great Train Robbery - 100th Anniversary Edition (VCI DVD)

The Great Train Robbery 100th Anniversary Special Edition


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: A-     Film: A-



In one of the best, smartest silent film collections on DVD yet, VCI has issued the original Edwin S. Porter Great Train Robbery from 1903 with a huge amount of extras.  The box explains correctly that this was the first narrative film and the first Western.  The only things omitted or missed are 1) this is before the form became a genre (which happened with John Ford’s 1939 classic The Searchers) and 2) it is also the first Gangster film.  Though the characters are dressed in what we now consider Southern U.S.A. attire, this was more common or commonly thought of as usual in the late 1800s/early 1900s.


As a matter of fact, the famous gunshot into the camera by George Barnes was duplicated with ever-shocking effect by Martin Scorsese in one of the last shots of his 1990 masterwork Goodfellas.  As for the original Barnes piece, no one knows historically where it originally belonged, though this critic has a theory that it may have been left to the projectionist to splice it in wherever they felt like splicing it.  One could even imagine that this shocking moment might have been changed around to get the goat of repeat viewers.  There are more than a few reports of audience members being so shocked and disoriented, that several pulled out their guns and shot back at the movie screen!


Either way, it is not that long and is an amazing early achievement that was more violent and well-remembered than Wallace McCutcheon’s Kit Carson that was also issued in 1903.  Without Porter, The Edison Company actually made The Little Train Robbery with children and scale sets, et al, but that is sadly not here or anywhere we know of.  The real “Broncho Billy” Anderson also starred in the


But since a DVD can fit much more material than that, VCI has decided to play off of its Western side by including some other key Western Silents.  D.W. Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913), The Heart of Texas Ryan (aka Single Shot Parker from 1916) with Tom Mix, and King Baggott’s Tumbleweeds (1925) are included, all classics worthy of the main short feature.


The Griffith short manages to get through all 20 minutes (2 reels) without a dull moment, but is typically anti-Native American.  Lillian Gish shines as always (where would Griffith have been without her) and she is joined by Mae Marsh as two victims of an “Indian” attack.  This was towards the end of Griffith’s cycle of “mature” Western shorts, all for Biograph, before he moved on and eventually formed United Artists before ill health forced him to bow out early.  This would also end Griffith’s flirtation with Westerns.


Tom Mix is one of the ever-legendary stars of the early Western, and his breakthrough came at the Selig studios in 1910.  Heart of Texas Ryan is six years later, with Mix at his peak, leaving for the original Fox studios, where he helped William Fox build the company into an even larger filmmaking entity two decades before their merger with 20th Century Pictures.  This hour-long film moves along nicely and shows why Mix was appealing to so many millions.


Tumbleweeds was one of the next big breakthroughs for the Western, taking the next step towards a more naturalistic approach to making such films.  This is the 89 minutes-long version with the 1939 sound prologue added.  William S. Hart left Paramount, where he was a big hit, to possibly make his kind of Western later.  This happened with this film at United Artists, but he even had problems with them.  It was only a big hit 14 years later!  In it, Don Carver (Hart) is ready to get in on The Cherokee Strip in 1889, and also wants to strike it rich personally by landing Molly Lassiter (Barbara Bedford) in the process.  Ron Howard recently tried to pull off the landrush scene in his 1992 70mm epic Far and Away, but it still did not have the character of this film’s landmark version, a true American silent classic moment; the kind still known internationally to this day.


Every film but Gulch has an intro by Will Hutchins and trailers for other VCI Westerns, plus bios on Anderson, Mix and Hart round out the extras, unless you have a DVD-ROM.  IF you do, you can access seven terrific websites worth your time.  That is a great amount of material for a single DVD.


Technically, this material looks really good, especially since it is archival.  I would love to see all this stuff get the wetgate treatment and some painstaking frame-by-frame work, but that will not happen until High Definition playback calls for it.  The films are still some of the best looking silent films out on the market, which makes this one of the most archival DVDs yet released.  These are silent films, but there is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono music if you want to hear something while you play the films.    The Battle of Elderbush Gulch had my favorite score here.  This is a must-see for any serious film buffs, defying The Western in its relevance as it and so many other types of filmmaking up.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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