By Ken Withers, April 7, 2021

This month's installment of Hollywood Trainspotting features train robberies, a staple of classic Hollywood. Lots of movies depict high-speed heists. Some even have "train robbery" in the title. I've chosen the two best-known. They have the same title. They both have exciting action scenes in which the trains are central "characters." But they represent quite different times in the development of cinematographic technology and have no relation plot-wise.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)


This film was produced by the Edison studio and is considered a milestone in movie-making history. But it was not, as the mythology would have it, either the first Western or the first film with a coherent story. While it pretended to be set in the Wild West with actors dressed up as cowboys, it was actually shot in the wilds of New Jersey. It was innovative for its time, featuring matte technique to create the illusion of passing landscape and a camera that moved to follow the action. But perhaps its greatest contribution to movie history was that it was a commercial success in the days before movie theaters.

The complete movie is short; only 12 minutes. But there was no such thing as a "feature film" in 1903. It was sold to vaudeville houses as a novelty to be shown between the live acts, and to "nickelodeons," or storefront amusement arcades, which charged a nickel for admission. The story was loosely based on a on stage play of the same name, although real-life train robberies were sensationalized in the newspapers of the day, and Butch Cassidy's robbery of the Union Pacific in 1900 was still fresh in people's minds.

A New York Times article in 1904 reported that Edison attempted to get the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad to lend their tracks and cars for free for the film. The railroad management wanted nothing to do with it until they were convinced that the movie would be good advertising. A real fireman and engineer were recruited to play those parts, and the filming caused a minor panic among onlookers when a dummy thrown off the locomotive was mistaken for a real accident victim.

The film's most famous scene doesn't involve a train, or even have anything to do with the story. It's a brief image of actor Justus Barnes, in his Western outlaw costume, pointing a gun directly at the camera and shooting. Audiences of the time had never seen anything like it, and it caused some spectators to cover their ears, although the film is silent. Theater projectionists were instructed to show this short scene either at the very start to get the audience's attention, or at the very end as a coda.

You can watch a 5-minute clip opposite, but you can download the entire film for free from the Library of Congress.

The Great Train Robbery - Opening Credits (1978)

The Great Train Robbery - Long Clip (1978)


This movie was produced and directed by Michael Crichton and is based on his novel of the same name. Unlike the 1903 production, the story has some historical roots. It centers on the first reported robbery of a moving train, which occurred in England in 1855. Although the events took place in Victorian England, the movie was shot in Ireland, which provided unspoiled rural landscapes, stations and railyards untouched by modern improvements, and beautiful stone arch tunnels and underpasses all along the line.

Sean Connery was more than just the star of the film. He did all his own stunts, and they are jaw-dropping. The 8-minute clip opposite will have viewers on the edge of their seats, as Connery deftly hops from car rooftop to car rooftop, narrowly avoiding several potentially decapitating encounters with those stone arches. The train barrels along at 55 miles per hour, well above the 20 miles per hour that the producers assured him would be the top speed. Connery had difficulty keeping smoke and cinders from the locomotive out of his eyes. At one point, he slipped while jumping between two cars, losing the bundle he was carrying. But the camera was able to swing around to keep him in the shot while he retrieved it, providing some additional unrehearsed excitement.

The train featured in the clip is reported as a "J-15 class 0-6-0 No 184 of 1880, with its wheels and side rods covered and roof removed, leaving only spectacle plate for protection to give it a look more akin to the 1850s." The coaches were custom-built on top of modern flat cars for the film. If you have sharp eyes, you might notice that the train has Westinghouse brakes, although those hadn't been invented in 1855. The station platforms are also modern, as high platforms to match the train floor levels were not common until later in the century. And even us nearsighted viewers will immediately see that one of the bridges that Connery dodges has a modern steel trestle. It's still exciting to watch!