Film Some brief notes on genre. Again.
The Great Train Robbery is popularly thought of as the first Western or at least a pre-cursor to the modern western. But in production, this was not in the minds of the film makers. The situation is rather more complicated and although for various reasons it’s possible to label it a “western” it’s also a number of other things.
Genre tends to be defined in two ways, semantic and syntactic. Semantic refers to how the film looks and the tropes of the genre are in what we can see. If everyone has guns, hats and horses in a desert it’s a western. If it’s guns, hats and cars in the city it’s gangster film. If it's phasers, environmental suits and spaceships its sci-fi.
Syntactic is about the structure of the story. A romantic comedy is a meet cute with various obstacles then inhibiting the couple from coupling until they do. A hyperlink film has lots of different plots, with lots of different demographics of people mixing unexpectedly across numerous geographic locations. A walking film is a road movie on foot. If everyone dies at the end, its a tragedy.
There are also two ways of deciding the genre in which a film fits. The first is to watch a “corpus” of similar looking films, looking for commonalities, “tropes” and then dismissing titles which don’t match and seeking others which do. Semantically that’s how The Great Train Robbery became thought of as a western due to the tropes we’ve already discussed.
The other is through cycles, in which a film is popular, does business and so a lot of similar films are made to capitalise. Found footage films are a recent example, as is teen horror in the wake of Scream or “torture porn” after Saw. Usually these genres are actually presenting a new twist on some old format and so antecedents will show themselves.
Which is why The Great Train Robbery is so complicated; in production it was actually within contemporary a cycle of “heist” or caper films (see also A Daring Daylight Burglary) and is even still listed as such at the Wikipedia. It fits the syntactic tropes of planning a robbery and carrying it out ala the Oceans films, albeit over a slender run time.
It’s also a period drama, since it’s recalling recent history, the production design recreating a landscape and people from just a couple of decades previous not unlike a 2010s filmmaker setting their film in the 80s. Some of the people watching The Great Train Robbery would recognise the images in their own memories.
The “western” didn’t exist as a film genre when this was made, the term not being used until 1912 and even then it would be decades before directors set out to make a “western” rather than a film which happened to be set in the 1880s in the American West. The final shot of the film is up front on the genre’s Wikipedia page.
Which is why I find film studies so interesting. Nothing is fixed, everything is in flux and preconceptions can be annihilated with a new piece of information or thought and how you approach viewing films changes. Watching The Great Train Robbery as a heist or period film gives it a completely different texture, making it even more entertaining.