The Train Wreckers (1905)
Edwin S. Porter returns to the familiar subject matter of trains and crime, perhaps hoping for another hit on the scale of “The Great Train Robbery.” While it may not have succeeded on the same level, this was one of the bigger releases for the Edison Studios in 1905, and it presents us with an interesting study of early cinema tropes.
A woman walks out onto her porch and greets a man dressed in a railroad uniform and carrying a metal lunchbox. She waves as he walks away. Then, in a very interesting shot, we see the woman at work in an office with an overview of the tracks. After a train rushes by, she pulls one of the switches, seemingly a very un-feminine job for the time. The she says goodbye to her boss and his dog and picks up an identical metal lunchbox and walks down the tracks and into the woods. After a brief walk, she comes across a circle of men dressed like hoboes and sitting in the road, vigorously discussing a plan. One of them carries a rope. She hides behind a tree, but another hobo comes up from behind her and grabs her and the others come over and use the rope to tie her to a tree. The dog from the office now runs up and frees her by biting through the ropes. She collects her lunchbox and goes after the men.
We now see the group of hoboes piling large logs onto the train tracks to cause a wreck. They leave the logs and the woman runs up. She tries to move a log, but can’t make enough progress to clear the tracks before the train arrives, so she runs towards it, waving her handkerchief to get the engineer’s attention. The train continues past her, but finally stops just in time and the man she greeted earlier thanks her for her help while others clear the tracks. Then everyone gets back on board the train and it continues without her. She walks alone down the tracks and is jumped again by the train wreckers, who knock her out and leave her on the tracks. They raid a nearby shed and take a hand-powered rail cart, all six of them working together to get away quickly. Now the train comes toward the woman lying on the tracks, and it looks like she will be crushed, but the man from the beginning is sitting on the cow-catcher, and he picks her up and saves her at the last moment.
Now, the engine is detached from the train and pursues the wreckers, with a man firing a rifle from the cow catcher. They try to return fire with pistols, but it has to be hard to shoot and pump at the same time. Eventually, the train catches up and after a brief gun battle all of the wreckers are killed. The end.
This movie is much more artistically satisfying than “The Miller’s Daughter” and more effective, I would say, than “The Kleptomaniac” and other progressive statements about society from Porter. Porter’s strong point seems to have been the action movie, and while this might not satisfy current mega-budget action fans, it works nicely as a basic crime-suspense thriller. Of course, the villains have no obvious motivation (it’s not clear what they’ll get from either wrecking the train or killing the girl), but they work as adversaries to our more plainly-motivated heroes, and it is satisfying to see them overcome. According to Charles Musser in The Emergence of Cinema, it was one of the bigger-selling movies of the year.
This movie also raises a bit of a quandary for silent movie fans. Folks who haven’t seen a lot of silent movies often have the idea that one common trope was “the girl tied to the train tracks.” In reality, this is far from a common theme in silent films, and in most of the better-known cases, it is used comedically, in the spirit of parodying nineteenth-century stage melodrama clichés. But, this is one movie that seems to deliberately draw on the cliché. It certainly doesn’t appear to be ironic or humorous, as in the cases of ‘Teddy at the Throttle” or “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life.” It is there to heighten the tension, and does so pretty well. Now, obviously our heroine is not actually tied to the track (otherwise the last-minute rescue wouldn’t work), but she is left unconscious and immobile on the tracks to be hit by a moving train, so the distinction is pretty minor. Porter was a pretty nineteenth-century kind of guy, and it makes sense that as he’s moving more into the realm of melodrama, he would pick up something so visual that had worked on the stage. So, I would say that this is one rare example of the concept in silent film – one which is probably unknown to the vast majority of those who claim it was all over the place.
Nineteenth-Century or not, it’s worth noting that the heroine here is not a completely helpless damsel, although she is rescued twice (once by the dog, once by the engineer). She pulls a heavy switch at work, and she makes a valiant effort to move the logs, and does manage to save the train on her own even when she can’t move them. She takes some degree of agency in the movie, and makes a difference to its outcome, which may be more than most of the “girl on the tracks” crowd would ever expect.
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson
Run Time: 11 Min, 45 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music).