The Arrival of a Train (1897)

The 50-second recording of a train’s arrival at La Ciotat Station was neither one of the first films ever made nor a reason for filmgoers to run in terror from the theatre.

train-ciotatFrance
5*

Directors:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière
Screenwriters:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière
Directors of Photography:
Auguste Lumière

Louis Lumière

Running time: 50 seconds

Original title: l’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat
Alternate title: l‘Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat

The Arrival of a Train, while so often credited with being “the first”, was actually anything but. It was not the first film to be recorded, nor the first to be shown, nor even the first “arriving train” film that its makers, the two fathers of the cinematic art form, ever produced. But for good reason it has become a symbol of the power of movement and verisimilitude that rapidly propelled this monochrome curiosity into the pantheon of art forms.

The story goes that this 50-second shot showing an oncoming train created such terror among the room full of cinematic neophytes that it sent them scattering for their lives. The incident allegedly took place in January 1896, that is in the weeks that followed the very first screening of brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first 10 “views”, each roughly 1 minute in length, at the Salon indien du Grand Café in Paris on 28 December 1895.

Did they or did they not flee from their seats when they saw the train approach? Although the story above has become one of the foundational myths of the cinema and has been recounted in countless film studies books and classes over the years, it no longer holds much sway.

In theory, the story makes absolute sense, not only because of the novelty of seeing almost life-sized movements from up close but also because Paris, where the first screenings of the Auguste and Louis Lumière’s one-minute films were held, was the setting for a famous train derailment just weeks earlier: On 22 October 1895, a locomotive like the one in the film sped towards Montparnasse Station, but when its brakes failed, it crashed through the barriers, careened across the station concourse and plummeted into the street below.

But here’s the rub: The famous Arrival of a Train that has become such an icon of the early days of cinema was actually shot a full 18 months after the inaugural screening at the Salon indien. And it was the Lumières’ second attempt at capturing this scene. Of this first film, which might or might not have had the same title and was projected in multiple venues starting in Lyon on 26 January 1896, only the copies of 32 representative frames remain, published as part of an article on the working of the cinematograph in the journal La Science française (no. 59, 13 March 1896, p. 89). These images, whose quality is just good enough to confirm they belong to a very different scene than the one in Arrival of a Train, may be viewed by clicking here.

As with most of the Lumières’ works, which fit into what film historian Siegfried Kracauer dubbed the “absolute realism” camp, this particular “view” is exceedingly straightforward: In the opening frame, a man on a station platform is hauling an empty luggage cart behind him before disappearing off-screen. But blink and you’ll miss him looking straight into the camera, which is likely why the film was cut in such a way as to prevent the viewer from noticing this breaking of the fourth wall (it is conspicuous that no one else appears to notice the Lumières’ giant camera/cinematograph and hand-crank operator/director of photography on the platform).

The man’s departure from the frame reveals behind him a crowd of people waiting in line for a train to arrive, which happens almost immediately. One of the people in the crowd is a woman holding hands with her child, dressed in white; walking briskly alongside the train, in the direction of the viewer, they pass by and exit the frame moments before the train comes to a complete stop.

This woman is Marguerite Lumière (née Winckler), the wife of Antoine, and the child is their three-year-old son, Andrée, who starred as the lead (and titular) character in Feeding the Baby (Repas de bébé), directed in February 1896. And the appearance of Andrée, born on 22 June 1894, is proof that the film could not have been shot in 1895, because the child onscreen is clearly much older than 12 months. In fact, Arrival of a Train was shot in the summer of 1897 at the train station in the seaside town of La Ciotat, along the Côte d’Azur, just southeast of Marseille. 

The story of the terrified filmgoers may be nothing more than marketing, but the film itself is one of the crowning achievements of the Lumière brothers. With a single, fixed shot, they make the train the central character entering the scene with flair that almost certainly evoked a (measured) reaction in the viewer thanks to the movement inside the frame. This was the beginning of something big.

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

An 18-second reconstruction of a historical event hints at the violence and invisible special effects that would ultimately become integrated into the stories told on film.

execution-mary-stuartUSA
4.5*

Director:
Alfred Clark

Screenwriter:
Alfred Clark

Director of Photography:
William Heise

Running time: 18 seconds (0.3 minutes)

It is an indisputable fact that movies as we know them today, at least as we have known them for decades, projected to dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people watching and enjoying them as a film-going community, originate with the French Lumière brothers. But the great U.S. inventor Thomas Edison does have a claim on inventing one kind of moving picture. Thanks to his Kinetoscope, which he was inspired to develop by another giant of the early moving picture industry, Eadweard Muybridge (best known for his Horses in Motion images, a series of pictures that showed for the first time exactly how horses gallop), stories could now be told with life-like movements. Many of these glimpses of real-life movement that the Kinetoscope recorded pre-dated the Lumières’ Cinematograph.

One big difference between his films and those of the French brothers was that Edison’s productions were not projected onto a screen: They could only be watched by one person at a time through a peephole on top of a large machine. Another major difference is that these early Edison films were shot (and “projected”) at an astounding rate of around 40 frames per second, nearly twice as fast as films today (24 fps) and much faster than the Lumière films (16 fps).

But what they lacked for in technical wizardry, Edison’s directors made up for in creativity, and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (also known as The Execution of Mary Stuart) is likely the first film to use the possibilities of the medium to produce a film that is not a mere recording of sights and sounds. It was recorded on 28 August 1895, after the production of some of the Lumière films but before they were screened in Paris exactly four months later. While it falls into the tradition of the “tableau”, a single unmoving frame in which all the players appear together and are nearly immobile, this special effects film uses editing to obscure an important replacement of an actor by a mannequin.

The film is not about a story but – like so many other films during the 1890s – about an event, namely the 1587 execution of the former queen of the Scots, Mary Stuart, following more than 18 years in captivity. The film does not provide any context, but to the viewer of 1895, when the film was produced, it must have been an unusual experience to peek into a Kinetoscope and see someone decapitated.

This 18-second film depicts a throng of soldiers bearing spears who have gathered around a masked executioner waiting next to the chopping block. In front of him, the berobed former queen (actually, in full Shakespearean style, played by a man, Robert Thomae) walks closer and kneels on the ground. The executioner picks up his axe and brings it down on the woman’s neck. A quick cut later, the head has been separated from the body and falls over the other side of the block. The executioner picks up the head and lifts it proudly into the air while the soldiers rush forwards to have a look for themselves.

The event has a melancholy but tense beginning, a violent middle and a triumphant, gory ending. The scene is brightly illuminated, and the focus is tight and narrow, although the soldiers standing around are something of a stand-in for the viewer and her own curiosity.

Director Alfred Clark, who was only 21 years old at the time and had replaced WK Dickson as the official photographer at Edison’s company after Dickson’s departure in April 1895, shows how even at the early stages of the film business, there was already a desire to elicit a visceral reaction from the viewer. In the case of this film, which hints at the subsequent evolution in editing and special effects, this desire compelled the director to get creative and produce one of the most interesting landmarks in early cinema.