Life of an American Fireman (1903)

This is a famous early movie by Edwin S. Porter, released earlier in the same year as “The Great Train Robbery.” It is one of the best-known examples of early editing structure, and gives us an opportunity to discuss the development of cinema beyond the single-shot film to the multi-shot narrative, and how this concept has changed over time.

lifeofanamericanfiremanThe first shot in this movie is an interesting trick shot, or special effect. A fireman is seen dozing at work, and over his shoulder is an image of his dream. He is dreaming about a woman putting a small child to bed (perhaps his own wife and child). The next shot is a close-up on a street-corner fire alarm. An anonymous hand opens the case and pulls the alarm. Then we cut to an image of the bunks inside the firehouse, with all of the firemen sleeping. They wake up to the alarm, and then leap out of bed, put on boots and trousers, and slide down the pole to the stables below. We see each one mount the pole and disappear in turn. Then we cut to the stable, and watch as each man slides down the pole in the center of the screen, and runs over to mount the wagon he will ride. Once they are all aboard, the ropes before the horses are taken down, and they race across the screen. Next we see the exterior of the firehouse, and watch as each wagon bolts out the doors and runs onto the street. We cut to another street corner, and watch the fire trucks race by, while crowds of spectators gather to watch them. There are two such shots in sequence, and each one allows each wagon to rush by, the second panning to follow them. This pan ends at the burning house, where we see the fire fighters preparing their hoses.

lifeofanamericanfireman2Now, the scene cuts to the interior of the house, which looks like the same bedroom in the man’s dream from the opening. Smoke is billowing into the room, and the woman and child sleep on the bed. She gets up and runs to the window, screaming for help, then collapses back on the bed. A fire fighter breaks down the door with his axe and runs in. He tears down the curtains and breaks the window open. A ladder appears at the window, and he picks up the unconscious woman, carrying her to it and climbing out on the ladder. A moment later he (or another fire fighter) reappears on the ladder and runs to pick up the sleeping child, taking her out the same way. Now two fire fighters enter from the ladder, wielding a hose, which they spray liberally around the room. The final shot reproduces this last sequence of events, but does so from outside the house (the same shot as the end of the pan, above). A fire fighter enters the burning house from the first floor at about the same moment as the woman appears in the window above. Others set up the ladder from below, and still more train their hose on the house, spraying water in through the open door and windows. Meanwhile, the first fire fighter carries the woman down the ladder and revives her, then runs back to the ladder to recover the child. Finally, the men with the hose climb the ladder, having put out the fire in other parts of the house.

lifeofanamericanfireman1This film s famous for showing Porter’s developing understanding of editing, being a great example of a narrative created by inter-linking shots sequentially. For many years, it was also controversial, because there were two versions – one which followed the sequence I have just described, and another which cross-cut the scenes outside and inside to create a more “modern” style of storytelling. It is pretty well established now that this version is correct: first we see the rescue played out in entirety from inside the house, then we see the entire sequence again from the other perspective. This lines up with audience expectations of the time. People would quite probably have been confused by parallel editing, not being used to seeing shots inter-cut at the time. This gives us a chance to talk a bit about how this whole idea of stitching shots together came about in the first place. The old narrative was that certain “genius” directors like Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter “invented” it. Actually, this isn’t really true. As we have seen in this project, for many years a “film” equaled a single shot of relatively fixed length, that played out some kind of story, with a beginning, middle, and end. But often they had related themes, fire fighting being a classic example. So, what various ingenious exhibitors started doing was to create narratives by showing related films in sequence, with their own narration filling in names of characters, etc. So, perhaps you would see “A Morning Alarm” followed by “The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy” and then “Firemen Rescuing Men and Women” while a narrator told you that this was all footage of the same fire. This is where Porter and Méliès (whose “A Trip to the Moon” was a multi-shot film from the previous year) got the idea to make longer movies out of a series of shots. It also explains why they did not cut within their shots – this would have broken the established logic of narrative at the time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter (possibly with James H. White and/or George S. Fleming)

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughn, James H. White

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here.