The Great Train Robbery always takes me back to Disneyland, which is where I first watched it in the calm darkness you would step into off the hustle and bustle of Main Street, playing in an endless loop all day, available to be viewed over and over again before you moved on to, say, Steamboat Willie. Disney’s original vision for Main Street, USA, was for it to be a reflection of his hometown, Marceline, Missouri. Once upon a time, there were ample reminders on Main Street of the movies of Disney’s youth. These were probably lost on most visitors, but they were part of the magic of Disneyland to me as a young film fanatic. Aside from plenty of traces of Disney’s own historic films from the 1930’s and 40’s, the Main Street Cinema and the Mutoscope machines were parts of Disneyland that I returned to again and again, and they meant more than all the amusement park rides put together. In the earliest days of film, Mutoscope was the main competitor to Edison’s Kinetoscope, a single-viewer device that showed early movies in the form of automated flip cards. Disneyland has long ago sold their Mutoscope machines, or placed them in mothballs in a basement somewhere. But in my youth in the 1960’s and 70’s, you could still watch them in the shops on Main Street and pretend it was sometime around 1903. But even though the Mutoscopes have vanished, the Main Street cinema lives on showing early Disney cartoons.
Much ink has been spilled about Edwin S. Porter’s cinematic innovations on this film, which are technical developments from an era when film-makers were first learning how to tell stories on film. But the thing that made this movie such a hit is its sense of motion and excitement. It stands as the first American action picture and the first bona fide Western. The cliches upon which it is based were known to all viewers at the time from vaudeville melodramas and dime novels, but the movie medium added a new dynamic dimension. There are trains moving by outside of windows in rooms where action is happening. People are running and fighting on trains that are also moving. A country barn dance morphs in a moment into a fast-forming posse that rides off guns a-blazing. The final famous shot shows a bandit firing his gun point-blank into the camera, causing the unseen audience to recoil in surprise.
While movies got more and more sophisticated over the next few years, the winning formula of The Great Train Robbery was never completely eclipsed until 1915 when the runaway success of Birth of a Nation ushered in the era of feature films.