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Birth of the Western Film

The Great Train Robbery (film)In 1894, Thomas Edison produces a large number of documentary Kinetoscope footage of Western life.  Some of this footage features Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show.  They include Indian scenes, cowboys at work footage and scenic views.

However, in 1898, the Edison Company makes two films that contain a storyline.  It is a decisive jump from the reality films, which dominates the very early years of the cinema.  It is the drama or story that moviemakers found Hollywood.  The first film is Poker at Dawson City.  Sitting around a table, we watch four people play cards and cheating.  Suddenly, a fight breaks out.  The title Poker at Dawson City anchors it firmly to a Western setting.  The card playing and fistfight scenes become Western staples.

The better-known film is Cripple Creek Bar-room.  The story is about people drinking in a bar.  After getting drunk, the barmaid throws them out.  As with Poker at Dawson City, the title establishes the location as a Western.  (Cripple Creek is the biggest gold strike in Colorado.)  Besides, the costumes portray a make Western style.  One or two of the hats resemble the cowboy�s ten-gallon hat.  One character dresses in top hat, white shirt and black coat, the traditional garb of the gambler we will find in later Western movies.

The Great Train Robbery may not be the first Western film, but it is a major advance in film production.  The director, Edwin S. Porter, uses actual outdoor locations (He shots the film in New Jersey on the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad).  It only runs ten-minutes and importantly the film has a story that becomes traditional to Western audiences worldwide.  The film includes a train robbery, a fistfight, a horseback chase, a dude forced to dance at gunpoint, and the final shootout.  Unfortunately, the short running time does not allow actors to develop their characters.  The film is also shot with long shots with virtually no close ups.

Instead of The Great Train Robbery being the first dramatic Western movie story, Kit Carson may hold that distinction.  In September 1903, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company produce the film.  Director Wallace McCutcheon directs this short 21-minute film.  Indians capture Kit Carson and tie him to a tree in the Indian village.  An Indian maiden aids him in his escape.  It would be December 1903, that Porter and the Edison Company copyrighted The Great Train Robbery.

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History of Western Films & TV
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