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With: A.C. Abadie, Gilbert M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson, George Barnes, Justus D. Barnes, Walter Cameron, John Manus Dougherty Sr., Donald Gallaher, Frank Hanaway, Adam Charles Hayman, Morgan Jones, Marie Murray, Mary Snow
Written by: Edwin S. Porter, Scott Marble
Directed by: Edwin S. Porter
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 11
Date: 12/01/1903

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

4 Stars (out of 4)

What's the Holdup?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Arriving in January 2004, this disc from VCI Entertainment is just a little late in celebrating the 100th anniversary of Edwin S. Porter's remarkable 1903 film The Great Train Robbery. The 11-minute classic comes in two versions here, a black-and-white, silent version and a remastered, tinted version with music and sound effects.

In a prologue, Western actor Will Hutchins (Monte Hellman's The Shooting) provides a bit of historical information about the film, explaining that it featured action moving from back to front and front to back instead of side-to-side, as well as cross-cutting, a narrative storyline and suspense. But most astonishing of all was the final touch, a close-up of a gunfighter firing directly into the camera -- and into the audience. Legend has it that 1903 audiences screamed and ducked and ran for their lives.

But there's more. The disc comes with three other silent Westerns. Firstly, Tom Mix stars in The Heart of Texas Ryan (1917), a patchwork film with several straying plot threads. But ultimately it comes down to Mix trying to impress Ryan (Bessie Eyton) by not using his gun to solve problems (such as foiling her kidnappers and stopping cattle rustlers).

The disc includes actor/director William S. Hart's final and biggest film, Tumbleweeds (1925). This 83-minute 1938 re-release version comes with a spoken prologue by a sixty-something Hart at the end of his career, as well as music and sound effects.

Finally, and most disappointingly, the disc includes D.W. Griffith's The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1914), but in a sorry print shown at the wrong projection speed. It runs only 20 minutes when it should be about 30, and the characters appear in that jerky, frenetic movement that turned so many people off to the pleasures of silent films. Fortunately, the film is avaialble in a nicer print and at its correct speed on both Image Entertainment's "D.W. Griffith: The Years of Discovery" and on Kino's "D.W. Griffith: Masterworks" box set.

Regardless, VCI's disc is still a must-have, and perhaps the first great disc of 2004.

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