Introduces New Editing Techniques Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Audiences and filmmakers were thrilled with Edwin S. Porter’s film The Great Train Robbery, which introduced new cinematic techniques while establishing the narrative pattern of Western films.

Summary of Event

In the fall of 1903, Edwin S. Porter, working for Thomas Alva Edison’s Edison Company in New Jersey, made a moving picture the likes of which had never before been seen in the United States. It bore similarities in technique to some films from England and some from France, particularly those made by Georges Méliès, a Paris magician who had begun making motion pictures of his magic acts in 1896 and whose experiments in special effects and artificially arranged scenes had caught Porter’s attention. Porter, however, went beyond all of his predecessors in the film medium when he recognized the narrative potential for cutting and splicing different shots—that is, editing. He had first employed this technique in making The Life of an American Fireman Life of an American Fireman, The (film) in 1903, after many years as a maker of motion pictures for Edison. He had combined stock film of a fire company in action with specially shot scenes that were artificially arranged. The result was the merging of discontinuous action into coherent narration. Great Train Robbery, The (film) Motion pictures;The Great Train Robbery[Great Train Robbery] Filmmaking techniques Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Edwin S. Porter[Porter] [kw]Great Train Robbery Introduces New Editing Techniques, The (Fall, 1903) [kw]Editing Techniques, The Great Train Robbery Introduces New (Fall, 1903) Great Train Robbery, The (film) Motion pictures;The Great Train Robbery[Great Train Robbery] Filmmaking techniques Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Edwin S. Porter[Porter] [g]United States;Fall, 1903: The Great Train Robbery Introduces New Editing Techniques[00790] [c]Motion pictures;Fall, 1903: The Great Train Robbery Introduces New Editing Techniques[00790] Porter, Edwin S. Edison, Thomas Alva Méliès, Georges

In his next significant film project, Porter calculated that he could invent his whole collection of material, not relying on stock footage at all, and thereby control his narrative even more. His plan, which included shooting interiors as well as exteriors of the New Jersey countryside, was to produce a smoothly flowing narrative of “cops and robbers,” with cowboys as his characters. In this early, if not the first, Western film, the standard plot form of the chase was embodied in the journalistic event of the train robbery. Motion pictures;Westerns Western genre;films Porter’s genius was to recognize the potential of the Western genre for films. His social awareness led him to emphasize the powerful attraction of law-and-order themes.

Most important, however, was the technique he used for combining his discontinuously filmed shots. The Great Train Robbery would, by its artistic and commercial success, establish Porter as the leading director of his time and influence all later directors in their approach to the making of motion pictures. In fourteen shots (incomplete scenes), Porter presented a story with three lines of action that, through editing by intercutting the shots and using no dissolves or fades, he wove together to create an illusion of continuous narrative.

In the first scene, a fixed long-shot interior of a railroad telegraph office, two masked men force the clerk to stop the next train, which is seen through the window of the office. This is one of the earliest innovative features of the film. Porter may have created it by building the set of the office near an actual railroad, or he may have used the technique of double exposing the film, superimposing the moving train on a blank in the first exposure. It is probably an example of Porter’s using back-projection, shooting the interior from one side while projecting the moving train from the other side onto the space for the window.

While the train is departing, the robbers tie up the clerk and leave to catch up with the train. The next scene is an exterior shot of the railroad water tower, where the robbers hide before jumping onto the train, which is forced to stop beneath them. This cut from interior to exterior is Porter’s most creative act as director/editor. Because previous films had sought to keep narrative simple and continuous, most shots were complete scenes, with little intercutting between scenes and no intercutting between incomplete scenes (or shots). The action then shifts to a shot inside the mail car, where a clerk is accosted by the robbers, who shoot him and blow open the railroad safe, take its contents, and leave.

The fourth scene is shot from atop the moving train, in effect a “moving” camera, looking across the tender and into the locomotive cab. Intentionally or not, the scene is cinematically exciting because the camera helps to create the action, moving rather than simply showing movement. One virtue of editing through crosscutting shots is the creation of the illusion that widely separated actions are occurring at the same time. Simultaneously with the robbery of the mail car, the action of this scene shows two more robbers seizing control of the locomotive, tossing the body of the fireman from the train as they do so. The substitution of a dummy for the body of the fireman is only natural (and humane), but the illusion that a man has been thrown from the train is important for the pace of this sequence. Porter demonstrates that he will improvise in whatever way he must to sustain the vigor of the film’s fast-paced action.

The next scene is shot from beside the halting train, with the engineer uncoupling the locomotive and separating it from the rest of the train. Another exterior shot follows, in which the passengers are forced from the coaches and lined up along the tracks, where the bandits rob them. There are many passengers, and Porter may have recruited local citizens as extras. Use of extras would become increasingly necessary as films lengthened their narratives and expanded the scope of their action. One of the passengers runs toward the camera in an attempt to escape, is shot by the robbers, and falls to the ground. At the time, most film action involved actors moving from left to right or right to left in front of a static camera. This movement directly into the camera is another mark of the film’s novelty. In the seventh scene, the robbers board the locomotive and force the engineer to drive it off, away from the camera.

The next shot establishes some distance from the preceding one as the robbers halt the engine and run off into the wooded hills. To capture the movement of the robbers, Porter’s camera pans to follow their action. Again the film exploits a technique, panning, that would become standard cinematic practice, although it was far from standard in 1903. The outlaws are shown in the ninth scene running across a stream to mount their horses and ride into the woods. The action then shifts abruptly to a distant location in the next shot, inside the telegraph office again. Here the clerk is seen struggling to his feet so that he can use his chin to operate the telegraph. A little girl comes in with a pail and cuts the clerk free. He runs out of the office. The next scene takes place in a dance hall, to which the clerk has rushed to sound the alarm. He enters while a tenderfoot is dancing a jig to the tune of gunshots at his feet. When the clerk arrives, all the men grab their guns and rush out of the dance hall.

In the final sequence of the narrative, three shots are spliced together. In the first of these, the twelfth scene, the robbers ride their horses in flight from the posse; one of the robbers is shot and falls from his horse. The action required a stuntman, but Porter had no such trained actors on whom to draw. In the next scene, the three remaining bandits believe they have escaped, so they dismount and begin examining their loot. Suddenly they are surrounded and attacked by the posse; all the robbers and a few members of the posse fall in the gun battle. The final shot has no narrative function in the film. It is a close-range shot of the leader of the outlaw band, who points his pistol at the audience and shoots. This shot has not been woven into the cause-effect narrative illusions created by the intercutting of the rest of the film, but it forcefully testifies to the self-conscious artistry of Porter as he learned to master this medium.

One of the most famous images in The Great Train Robbery.

(Library of Congress)

Although he went on to make other interesting films for twelve more years, Porter did not make cumulative advances on the achievement of The Great Train Robbery. He used contrast editing in The Ex-Convict (1904) Ex-Convict, The [Ex Convict](film) and parallel editing in The Kleptomaniac (1905), Kleptomaniac, The (film) and he used many photographic tricks, such as double exposure, stop-motion, and dissolves, to make The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, The (film) in the tradition of Méliès’s trick films. Porter was burdened by the pressure to produce films on schedule for a demanding market, one enlarged by the multiplication of nickelodeons for mass public viewing. He made hundreds of films, but none was as influential as The Great Train Robbery.


Most American films before 1903, including those made at Edison’s studios and by Porter, had been very brief, one-shot moving pictures of such news events as the inauguration and funeral of President William McKinley. Interesting tricks of vision such as those made by Méliès in France were not yet made for the American market, although vaudeville skits and magicians’ tricks could be captured in such single-shot cinema. The first, although not the most important, influence of The Great Train Robbery was to show that there was a large commercial market for film narratives of all kinds, but especially for realistic Westerns. Although Edison had made some motion pictures of Western subjects, such as Cripple Creek Barroom (1898), no genuine continuing narrative of this kind existed before Porter’s film, which was 740 feet of visual action with no title cards, requiring a little more than twelve minutes to run.

The commercial and popular success of The Great Train Robbery was so great that many other filmmakers sought to rival it. Sequels, imitations, and even outright copies of the film were produced, among which were films titled The Great Bank Robbery and The Little Train Robbery. Investors saw that there was money to be made in films. Beginning with the proliferation of nickelodeons, Nickelodeons Theaters, motion picture permanent movie houses were built to provide mass entertainment for a potentially huge profit. The Great Train Robbery was long a standard film in these establishments. Indeed, the very first nickelodeon opened in Pittsburgh in 1905 with Porter’s motion picture as its attraction.

The more significant effects of Porter’s film were in the techniques that others borrowed to make their films, so that aesthetic form rather than the subject matter of films was influenced. Porter may have seen films made by the British directors G. A. Smith and James Williamson, who were experimenting with editing in their own ways, but it was Porter’s film, with its editing for continuity, that caused Smith, Williamson, and their followers to make full and artistic use of this technique, as in Cecil Hepworth’s Hepworth, Cecil critically acclaimed film of 1905, Rescued by Rover. Rescued by Rover (film)

The Great Train Robbery conveyed aesthetic energy and integrity through attention to techniques that were derived from the structure and mechanics of the medium itself. By manipulating the film and to some degree the camera, as well as the subjects of the filmic shots, Porter illustrated the importance of style and arrangement, thus establishing moving pictures as an art form. He realized that one could shape vision by arranging the elements within it, and he used this principle in the intercutting of shots for scenes. It would take director D. W. Griffith Griffith, D. W. to extend this by recognizing that a single scene can be made up of any number of shots. It is ironically appropriate that Griffith should have had his start in motion pictures as an actor in a film directed by Edwin S. Porter, Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest, in 1907. Great Train Robbery, The (film) Motion pictures;The Great Train Robbery[Great Train Robbery] Filmmaking techniques Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Edwin S. Porter[Porter]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, David A. “The Discovery of the Shot: Edwin S. Porter.” In A History of Narrative Film. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. Emphasizing the difference between Méliès’s method of arranging scenes and Porter’s arrangement of shots, Cook examines the narrative artistry of both The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery. Uses illustrative stills from the films.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Jack C. “Birth and Childhood of a New Art: 1895-1914.” In A History of Film. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990. Emphasizing Porter’s lack of experience with traditional art, Ellis explains the success of Porter’s work in films as commercial expediency. Praises The Great Train Robbery for unlikely achievements in form still valuable many years later.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairservice, Don. Film Editing: History, Theory, and Practice. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2001. Traces the development of film editing from the primitive forms of early cinema through the upheaval caused by the advent of sound.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fenin, George N., and William K. Everson. “The Primitives: Edwin S. Porter and Bronco Billy Anderson.” In The Western: From Silents to the Seventies. Rev. ed. New York: Grossman, 1973. Focusing on features of The Great Train Robbery that mark it as an early, although not the first, Western, Fenin and Everson examine Porter’s strengths and weaknesses as a director.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fulton, A. R. “Arranged Shots.” In Motion Pictures: The Development of an Art from Silent Films to the Age of Television. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960. Discusses significant differences between Porter’s arranged shots and Méliès’s arranged scenes, with focus on The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobs, Lewis. “Edwin S. Porter and the Editing Principle.” In The Emergence of Film Art, compiled by Lewis Jacobs. New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1969. Porter’s career, from handyman for Edison in 1896 to independent producer in 1911, concluded with his directing a spectacular story of Rome in 1915. Jacobs notes that the keys to Porter’s success were innovative techniques, especially in editing, and sensitivity to social issues in narrative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mast, Gerald. “Film Narrative, Commercial Expansion.” In A Short History of the Movies. 3d ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1981. Analyzes Porter’s work during the commercial expansion of film production, when melodrama and farce dominated theater. In The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery, Porter’s editing practices were superior to those of his predecessors and prepared the way for more significant contributions by Cecil Hepworth and D. W. Griffith.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, David. From Peepshow to Palace: Birth of American Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Provides an overview of the history of American film between 1893 and 1913. Includes 175 black-and-white and 16 color illustrations.

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Categories: History