The Great Train Robbery and The Phantom Carriage: Editing Comparison

Category: Crime, Train
Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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Drawing on the evidence provided by a sequence notation, show how editing functions narratively and expressively in one sequence from either Broken Blossoms (1919) or The Phantom Carriage (1921) and comment on the ways in which this differs from The Great Train Robbery (1903). The Great Train Robbery and The Phantom Carriage are both considered as one of the key creative movies ever made in history. The Phantom Carriage was very well known for showcasing it’s advanced narrative construction with flashbacks within flashbacks.

The Phantom Carriage would have had technological advantages over The Great Train Robbery since it was made eighteen years after. Hence, both their editing methods are substantially different. Having made a notation on one of the sequences from The Phantom Carriage, the narrative functions of the editing styles between the two will be discussed while the differences are highlighted. To start with, both the movies consisted of interesting cinematographic elements that allowed the editors to the cut the movie in the most creative way.

For a first narration film, The Great Train Robbery managed to introduce many interesting editing techniques. There were multiple location changes, camera movements and the introduction to the style of cross cutting was also impressive. The Phantom Carriage also consisted of many interesting techniques such as the use of various shots from different angles, camera movement and the display of a title card to express the narrative. The sequence chosen from The Phantom Carriage is the beginning to part three, which starts off with a black fade to colour transition.

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This transition automatically communicates a time change within the narrative. We are then shown an establishing outdoor shot, of a man dressed in a suit, walking out of a tall door that is closed by another man who seemed to look like a guard. This shot re-establishes the location as the outside of a jail due to its features such as tall doors, the presence of a guard, brick walls and then a tall building with corridor openings behind the brick wall, which is revealed after the camera pans slightly to the left as the man walks towards the camera. The man then looks to the left and exits the frame where the next cut is ade. As the cut is made before the man completely exits the frame, as audience, we expect it to be a match cut; instead it is a jump cut that cuts into the man running into one of the houses in the street. Although this marks a transition in time and space, it makes the audience curious on where the narrative had gone from when he left the jail, to when he got to the house. However compared to The Great Train Robbery, the narrative in The Phantom Carriage is still stronger as although there was a jump cut, the audiences were able to see the man leave the jail and enter the house.

The element of continuity in action expressed the narrative better. The scene in The Great Train Robbery, where the operator runs to the nearby dancehall to inform the others of the incident, the audiences are not shown the operators journey to the dance hall at all; instead the operator looks as if he is getting up to inform the others and then a jump cut is made to the ballroom where the people are dancing. We can then see another man enter the room; at first we would think that it is the operator but it is somebody else. Due to the lack of continuity, it could confuse the audience on what the narrative is.

As the operator later joins the crowd and informs the crowd of the incident, with the help of their exaggerated reaction to the situation, the narrative is made clearer. ‘In both narrative and non-narrative films, editing is a crucial strategy for ordering space and time. Two or more images can be linked to imply spatial and temporal relations to the viewer’. The Phantom Carriage consisted of a variety of shots from different angles that denoted the narrative over to the audience. In contrast, The Great Train Robbery did not show any one sequence from various angles.

Most scenes were shown from one angle and the set looked theatrical, almost like a black box theatre where the camera is the fourth wall. However, the narrative in The Great Train Robbery was very quick and easy to understand as each cut meant a scene change. A lot more happened between cuts in The Great Train robbery than in The Phantom Carriage. Therefore if somebody missed a cut from The Great Train Robbery, compared to The Phantom Carriage, it would have been more difficult for the person to understand what had occurred. The variety of shots in The Phantom Carriage meant that, even if somebody missed couple of shots, they would still be able to understand the plot. Also, having a variety of shots, allowed the audience to feel more connected to the movie, as they were able to analyse the situation from different angles. ‘ In the classic narrative system, editing is governed by the requirements of verisimilitude, hence the characteristics in any one film sequence of establishing shot, closer shots that direct the gaze of the spectator to elements of action to be read as significant, followed by further long shots to re-establish spatial relations. ’

The element of continuity is significant in making the movie appear as real as possible. A variety of shots were used to give the continuity effect in The Phantom Carriage. In the second shot from the sequence, it is established that the man is walking on the street and is about to walk into a house. We then see a mid shot of the man going up the stairs followed by a close up of the object he is looking at. We are then taken back to a mid shot of him looking down. The movements between the shots are cut and matched perfectly, meeting the requirements of verisimilitude.

The Great Train Robbery also had interesting moving background that set the scene without having to explain where the location was. For example, the way the background moved, while the thieves were robbing, made the narrative clearer by explaining the robbery that was happening in the train. This explained the title of the movie while expressing the narrative across. However, there were continuity issues, such as the differences between the speeds of the background movement between scenes.

For example, after the robbing scene, the scene cuts to a robber climbing the engine of the train. This is an outdoor scene and the movement of the train in the background suggested that the robbery happened while the train was moving. Compared to the previous shot, the speed in which the train moved has noticeably decreased, making the background movements in between the scenes look like a jump cut. Continuing on with the sequence, the next cut is made when the audience first sees an empty stairway, where the sequence has an added vignette effect to he frame. We then see the man quickly running up the stairs in the continuing movement from the previous frame. The vignette effect made it seem like someone was observing the man’s actions through a keyhole or peep hole from another room. We are then shown the man’s attempt in trying to get into the room using various eye-line matches between him and the doormat. The vignette effect still makes it seem like it was from a person’s point of view, as the effect disappears as soon the camera position changes in the next cut.

The next cut is a reverse angle shot that follows the 180-degree rule of the man walking into the room with the continuing movement from the previous shot. Perfect continuity plays a crucial part here as from the moment he got up from the stairs to where he got in to the room; all the cuts were perfectly matched with his movements. In contrast, there were no eye line matches or point of view shots in The Great Train Robbery. Most of The Great Train Robbery’s frames seemed like a theatrical stage where the actors entered in from either sides and left through those sides.

When the next cut is made, the vignette effect disappears denoting that the other vignette shots were definitely from someone’s point of view. We then see the character walk into the room through a door. The camera is placed facing the door towards the left of the frame making sure that both the doors are in the frame. As the character walks in, the camera pans to the right to include the door on the right in the frame. At this point, we are able to see all the three doors in the frame.

This moment is a key moment as this shows the importance in including the all doors in the frame. Having a door on the frame always brings in an idea of suspense, in finding out on the ways in which the objects behind the door is going to influence the narrative of the story. We then see the character run into the room, as expected the next cut is made where the physical action of the character running into the room is completed. This smooth match cut looked almost perfect since there were no absence of continuity in the movement expressed by the character.

This helped strengthen the way the narrative was expressed, as we were able to understand that the character couldn’t find what he desired. The next match cut was also equally effective as the cut made matched his action. There is an interesting mirror element to the way this short sequence from when the character came into the room, until when he walked out of the room was shot and cut. As he walks into the room, the camera pans slightly to the right as he enters the room on his left. This match cut of him going in and out of the room is perfect due to it’s element of continuity.

The cut matches the shot to its initial camera position that was used when the character walked into the room initially. Similar to the way the camera panned to the right as he walked into the room on his left, the camera pans slightly to the left, back to its original position as he walked out of the room. He then knocks on the opposite neighbour’s door; as soon as he knocks a lady opens the door immediately. It is interesting how quick she opened the door, as this confirms the discussion on the vignette effect denoting the shot as a point of view.

The camera was probably positioned by the door, and low angled shots such as the one looking down at the doormat and back up at the man shows that the camera is representing someone’s eyes. The restriction of view due the shot being a close-up with the added the vignette effect makes it almost look like someone was peeking through either a keyhole or a peephole. The use of point of view angle would connect the audience to the movie in a deeper level, as they are able to view the actor from another actor’s perspective.

In terms of mise-en-scenes used; the setting, the actors’ performance and costumes were a lot more exaggerated and unnatural in The Great Train Robbery compared to The Phantom Carriage. Due to this reason, The Great Train Robbery lacked the sense of realism in comparison. Due to the variety of cuts, it is easier for The Phantom Carriage to express emotions and denote the narrative through subtle acting, natural setting and simple costumes as the audiences are able to see more and close into the actors.

With The Great Train Robbery, if the elements were not exaggerated, the moments may go unnoticed leading to the narrative being conveyed as unclear to the audience. Although both the movies have significant differences in terms of the way it was shot and cut, The Great Train Robbery can be considered as an impressive work due to its ability in showing a difficult narrative in such a short time. Although its narrative was mainly expressed using its establishing shot, we were still able to understand the narrative without the help of title cards that was used in The Phantom Carriage as the main tool in expressing its narrative.

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The Great Train Robbery and The Phantom Carriage: Editing Comparison. (2017, May 28). Retrieved from

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