Two members of the bandit band break into the railroad telegraph office and force the telegrapher to give false instructions to a train to stop at the station's water tank to resupply water in the locomotive tender, so the whole band, composed by four men, can sneak aboard it. The telegrapher is then tied up, gagged and knocked unconscious by the two bandits.
Once onboard, two bandits kill a message man and open a locker of valuables using dynamites, while the others make their way to the locomotive, where they overpower the fireman who tried to fight them off with his shovel, killing him, and force the engineer to stop the locomotive and disconnect it from the other cars. After that, the bandits force all the passengers to step out of the train and rob them of their belongings, mercilessly gunning down a man who tries to escape. The bandits then escape on the disconnected locomotive in order to get near the spot where they had previously left their horses and ride away with the booty.
Meanwhile, the collapsed telegrapher is discovered by his child daughter, who unties and awakens him by tossing water on his face.
The telegrapher rushes in a room where men and women are dancing and tells them what has happened. Everyone rushes outside, men grab their rifles and pistols and run after the escaping bandits. In the chase, one of the bandits is shot by the posse but the surviving robbers get away and dismount, proceeding to share the booty. The men of the posse, however, had not losed them and silently approach the robbers, taking them by surprise, firing at them, and istantly killing one of them. The last two bandits return fire but are eventually taken down by the posse men that then retrieve the booty.
The film ends with a close-up of the leader of the bandits firing several times in the camera, as if he is shooting at the audience.
Why it Rocks
- It is the first western film ever made.
- It is considered the first action movie ever made.
- Great acting overall by all the actors, included the child who plays the telegrapher's daughter, like most silent films.
- One of the first films, if not the very first one, who stars a child in a key role. See plot and point 2.
- Possibly the first non comedy film that uses comic relief, namely the scene when an eastern stranger is forced to dance by some of the locals, by shooting near his feet.
- The ending segment where the leader of the bandits fires his pistol in camera most likely has surprised the audience back in 1903, in a way similar to "L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat" and is still remembered today.
- The film was one of the first ones to use techniques such as composite editing, on-location shooting, frequent camera movement and cross cutting, making it still very enjoyable after 113 years since its first release.
- Edwin S. Porter has stated that the memorable ending sequence could very well be placed before the actual film starts, too.
- In 1988 a postage stamp depicting Justus D. Barnes, the actor who plays the leader of the bandits, was released, proving that the film is not forgotten even in modern times.
- Martin Scorsese used the ending segment for inspiration for the final segment in his 1990 film "Goodfellas".
- In 1990 the film was included in The National Film Registry by The Library of Congress for being culturally and historically relevant.