Disney’s original vision for Main Street, USA, at the entrance to the original Disneyland, was as a reflection of his hometown: Marceline, Missouri. That he filled his Main Street with loving homages to the movies of his youth was probably lost on most amusement park visitors, but it was abundantly obvious to myself as a young film fanatic. More than the ice cream and souvenirs, I was fascinated by Disney’s old Mutoscope machines (Mutoscope was the main competition 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 Mutoscopes or placed them in mothballs in a basement somewhere. But the Main Street Cinema lives on, showing early Disney cartoons these days. In my youth, however, during Disneyland’s first three decades (up until the mid-1980’s), the Main Street Cinema showed early black-and-white short features, and it was always a highlight of my visits there. That is where I first saw The Great Train Robbery, and I watched it every time I went back.
Much ink has been spilled about Edwin S. Porter’s cinematic innovations on this film, which are technical developments in an era when film-makers were first learning how to tell stories on film. But what made The Great Train Robbery such a hit for over a decade has more to do with its sense of motion and excitement. It stands as the first American action picture and the first bona fide Western. The clichés 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 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 one of the bandits 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 several years, The Great Train Robbery was never completely eclipsed until 1915 when feature-length films came into their own with the runaway success of Birth of a Nation.