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The First Western in Film History


In 1903, Edwin S. Porter made the first Western, one of films to pioneer the use of cinematographic narration.

The Lumière Brother’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat’s effect on viewers in 1895 was historical. People panicked and thronged together in the aisles to run away from the colossal vehicle that was hurtling towards them. Our ability to differentiate moving images from reality had not yet been forged. The same thing happened during the premiere of Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). The legendary final plane, in which the cowboy shoots his gun directly at the camera, had a similar effect to the Lumière Brother’s film. While watching the first Western of all time, the members of the audience naïvely feared for their lives.

Edwin S. Porter (1870-1941) was trained in the Thomas Edison Studios. Fascinated by the power of Meliés and Ferdinand Zecca, Porter endeavored to develop an eminently narrative film. In 1902 he shot Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy, thus capturing with his camera real sequences he organized in a parallel montage, settling the foundation for cinematographic narrative.

Porter kicked off the Western genre with The Great Train Robbery. Organized in fourteen scenes and divided in three acts, it featured eight actors and actresses and hundreds of extras. His argument is based on real events that took place on August 29th, 1900, when four members of George Leroy Parker’s gang robbed Union Pacific Railroads’ train no. 3.

For his film, Porter used innovative cinematographic techniques, such as ellipsis, outdoor scenes, parallel montage, and the use of different locations in order to give rise to a united narrative. In this manner, based on the discoveries of the Brighton School, Porter perfected the main elements of cinematographic narration that are still used by filmmakers today.

The fact that one of the first North American films ever was a Western should not surprise us. As André Bazin pointed out in his analysis of the genre, the United States found a way of forging its own national mythology in the Western. This is why Porter’s film is simultaneously a milestone in the history of filmmaking and the culture of the United States.

Some of his innovations included out of field filming, which explains a sequence without showing it directly, as well as dispensing with external narration in order and let the images speak for themselves.

For the first time ever, the screen was representing horseback riding chases, shooting and the genre’s paraphernalia —such as hats, rifles and bandanas. A man fell, for the first time, from a train’s roof. For the first time, someone was forced to dance to the beat of a revolver’s shots. Scenes that have become true clichés and that began in the founding imaginations of one of the pioneers of cinematographic art.


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