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.
Directors of Photography:
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.