The Great Train Robbery, a film made in 1903 by Edwin Porter, is a landmark of US silent film. Its story spawned the western genre, its story was copied in countless action movies; it was one of the first narrative movies made in America.
Its story will be recognised by anyone. Bandits force a telegraph operator to order a train to stop in the nearby water station. As the train stops, the outlaws order the train engineers to separate the engine from the rest of the train; kill the postman who tried to protect the gold deposits; make the passengers line up outside, and rob them of their possessions. They drive the engine a few miles away, where they have tied their horses, and begin running away. In the meantime, the telegraph operator is freed of his ties by his child; the town population is having fun dancing in the saloon - at one point making a greenhorn "dance" while being shot at his feet, and when warned of the robbery, form a posse that rides after the evil-doers. They are able to shoot one of them, and the three others, thinking they have made their escape, start dividing the plunder. But the posse surrounds them and shoots them. Finally, the last shot of the movie is shown, both literally and figuratively, as it represents one of the actors emptying his gun straight at the audience.
Running at around 12 minutes, that is, one reel, the movie is undoubtedly dated, but not as much as one might think. Its editing is indeed modern for its time; though not the first fictional narrative, as Georges Melies already had claimed this, it was one of the starting points of the film industry in America. It started America's craze for westerns, which would make possible the development of Hollywood, and finally the huge financial investments to make feature films, the first of which being D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Among the cast was Broncho Billy, who decided to go on acting in westerns after the success of the movie. Its director, Edwin S. Porter, had been one of the early cameramen working for Thomas Edison. The movie may have been a western, but it was made in New Jersey, costing 5000 dollars.
One of the advantages of old, historical black and white movie is that they are available for download, at
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/gtr.html - choose the mpeg version rather than the low quality quicktime one.