The Great Train Robbery (35mm 1904, 16mm 1961)

13 Feb
Director Edwin S. Porter
Producer Blackhawk Films
Contributors Gatewood W. Dunston Film Collection, Library of Congress
Length 10 Minutes
B&W/Color B&W with sections of hand painted frames in color.
UO Library Catalog description: Bandits tie up the station master, stop the train, rob the mail car, take the passenger’s valuables, and then escape, and the station master’s daughter frees her father, alerts a group at a dance who then chase and overtake the robbers.
Call # Ma163
Genre Feature
Rare No
Online Yes
Copyright status Public Domain
Physical condition Poor
Oregon-related No

Notes: The Great Train Robbery is arguably one of the most influential films of all time, and certainly one of the most important in terms of editing and visual aesthetics. The film created such techniques ascross cutting, double exposure, composite editing, camera movement and on location shooting. There are certain 35mm prints that featured hand-colored frames as well to accentuate some of the more exciting parts of the movie.

This version is a 16mm duplicate of an original 35mm print. There is a disclaimer by Blackhawk films featured at the beginning indicating this. It states, “Presented in virtually the original form in which it was initially shown. Re-processed to eliminate the appearance of surface blemishes and scratches.” This may have been the case when the 35mm was transferred into the 16mm format in 1961, but the condition of the film now is absolutely terrible, with multiple frames that have been totally blown out and melted by heat, scratches, extensive warping and tons of splices. I would imagine that a film so important would have been watched and handled quite a bit for educational purposes as well as for any entertainment value, which would explain why its physical condition is so bad.

One of the strangest things however is that this may be actually two 16mm versions of The Great Train Robbery spliced together. About a quarter of the way through, the film jumps suddenly from one scene to a seemingly unrelated one. When this happens the color changes completely from black and white to red. Although the disclaimer by Blackhawk films says that certain hand painted scenes from the 35mm were retained in the transfer to 16mm, the sudden shift from black and white to pinkish-red doesn’t seem intentional, and doesn’t occur at a point of excitement or elevated emotion. This leads me to believe that at some point the original 16mm reel had become so damaged that someone decided to splice it into a different reel that had undergone some serious emulsion degradation. This would make sense, because the portion of the film with the red coloring is in notably better physical condition than the initial black and white portion. Perhaps the red part was handled and used less, but stored in less than favorable conditions while the black and white part of the reel was used to the point of being in terrible physical condition, but stored in a way that preserved its black and white properties.

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