Film History Essentials: L’arrivée d’un Train à La Ciotat (1897)

(English: The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat)

What it’s about:

A train pulls into a station and comes to a stop. A few employees walk quickly up to meet it as it rolls in. People on the platform rush forward to board, or to greet people who are getting off.

Why it’s essential:

L’arrivée d’un Train à La Ciotat contains probably the most well-known single image from all of 19th century film. At the same time, I can think of no other film that is more obscured by myth and misinformation. As the story goes, in December of 1895, an audience gathered for the first-ever movie screening. Suddenly, a train appeared, barreling towards the screen. No one in the room had ever seen anything like this before, and many people jumped up and ran from the room in fear, certain that a train was about to crash through the wall.

The story is almost irresistible as a testament to the fundamental paradigm shift represented by the dawn of cinema, and of those first audiences’ hilarious inexperience with motion pictures. It’s no wonder that it has served as a starting point for many narratives of the history of film. Unfortunately, none of it is remotely true. We’ll discuss first the concrete parts of this story that just factually can’t be, and then address what to make of the more romanticized details, their origins, and what basis they might or might not have in reality.

First of all, the Lumière brothers inaugural program from December 1895 simply does not include a film of a train arriving at a station. The titles shown during those first screenings are well-documented, and this is not among them. Well, actually, this film couldn’t have been among them, anyway. It wasn’t even shot until sometime in the middle of 1897. It is frequently cited as a film made earlier because it is actually the third version that they shot of a train arriving at this particular station. It is also the only version with an official number in the Lumière commercial catalogue: No. 653. The other two exist in the archive, but do not have a number.

The first version is known to have been shot in early 1896, because 32 stills from it were published in the March 13 issue of La Science française (see right). This version may have been shown to audiences in late January. Historians have suggested that the second version may have been filmed around the same time as the third, from a different angle. Virtually any version you find online is the third version. Although it is often mislabeled, it’s easy to tell, as it begins with a man exiting the frame to the right pulling a luggage cart.

The first version definitely exists online, but is harder to find among the many duplicates of the better-known version. You can see it here under the title “The first movie ever made in history.” It is shot from a very different angle, and in this version, most of the waiting crowd is standing much further back from the arriving train, and almost no women are present.

This train station, as the title states, is La Ciotat, a small community on the south coast of France, about halfway between Marseille and the shipyards at La Seyne-sur-Mer. The reason the Lumières were often there, filming a train arriving at this particular station a few hundred miles from their home base in Lyon, was that the family owned a large estate nearby. Unlike with the first version of the film, many of the people in the third version are either related to the family or are employed by them.

In fact, this is primarily how historians have dated the film to 1897. The woman and small child in white who hurry past the camera at 0:24 are Auguste’s wife Marguerite and his daughter Andrée, previously seen in Repas de Bébé, filmed in early 1895 when Andrée was less than a year old. We can see here that she is around three, so this couldn’t have been filmed or shown as early as is often claimed. (And we know it wasn’t later, because it began appearing on programs starting in October of that year.)

The older woman in the plaid shawl who appears at various points is Josephine, August and Louis’s mother (see left), and there are a few other individuals who have been positively identified as family members, as well. The Lumières likely used them in the film because they knew they could count on them not to look at the camera, as several people did in the first version. They knew that this “staging” would, ironically, make for a more natural-looking scene—a typical contradiction in many of the Lumière “actualities.”

Now, as to the claims about audience reactions to the film: Of course, this third version of the film was shown almost two years after the first motion pictures debuted, so it’s hard to imagine audiences still reacting as though an image were about to emerge from the screen. But what about the first version, which debuted perhaps a month after the first Lumière screening?

In a 2004 essay entitled “Cinema’s Founding Myth,” Martin Loiperdinger goes about systematically examining and debunking many of these claims. Most notably, he points out that the earliest accounts of terrified, fleeing audiences were published decades later, and then simply picked up and passed on by later writers. Writers of the time often gave detailed accounts, not only of the films shown, but of how audiences received them. It is almost unthinkable that the film could have affected an audience in the way described, and no one would have written about it at the time.

It’s also worth considering that every member of these early audiences would have been intimately familiar with trains. The entire point of the “actuality” view was to show a scene of everyday life, and the experience of standing on the platform as the train arrived was utterly commonplace. The members of the audience would certainly have been able to see that the train was not coming directly at the screen, but rather passing by it, just as it would when they themselves stood on a train platform (as they no doubt all had, many times).

But even more importantly, they would have been instinctively aware of all of the incredible noise (and other sensations) produced by a train arriving in a station and coming to a halt: The whistle to signal ahead, the hiss of steam and the puffing of smoke from the stack, the squealing of the brakes, and of course the deep, vibrating rumble of several hundred tons of metal rolling along a track. With none of those other sensory markers present, how could a 19th-century audience have really thought that a train was about to come bursting into their midst?

Now, having said all that, is it possible that some members of the audience might have involuntarily flinched or even ducked, as (lost in the magic of the moment) their bodies reacted to the thought of even something insubstantial about to flash silently by? I think it’s not only possible, but likely, and that those memories and stories perhaps grew in the telling as the years went by. People still get really into a movie and physically react to things that happen on the screen, even today. The biggest problem with this story is that everyone thinks it’s about the naivete of early movie audiences, when really it should be about the power cinema has always had over all of us.

Why you should see it:

Even though the reality is quite different from the story, I have a strong mental association between L’arrivée d’un Train and the magic of the birth of cinema. And I’m fine with that. I genuinely find it delightful to watch this. There’s something warm and charming about this summer scene. That’s especially true knowing that it was truly a family project, probably filmed on a family trip. But also, there’s something specific and special about this film that might have prompted early audiences to react to it in ways they didn’t to earlier films: Perspective.

Consider any other film made prior to 1896-97. Virtually all of them are shot as though the action is transpiring on a stage, and the camera is watching from the audience. Any interaction between the figures on the screen and the people in the audience is limited to, at most, a wave or a bow. Even the early actualities are shot in a way that preserves distance between the camera and the subject. With one or two (very noticeable) exceptions, the workers leaving the Lumière factory turn right or left and come no closer than several yards away from the camera. Even the awe-inspiring Lancement d’un Navire is shot in such a way that the massive ship slides by at a safe, fixed distance.

In contrast, L’arrivée d’un Train à La Ciotat completely rotates the usual planes of screen or stage action and shows its subject rushing past the camera. It’s no wonder, then, to learn that Louis had a long-standing fascination with “stereoscopic vision” (3D). Several decades later, in 1935, he presented the results of some experiments he had done with 3D filmmaking to the Académie des Sciences (see left). A summary of his presentation, “Écrans colorés pour projections stéréoscopiques” (“Colored screens for stereoscopic projections), was published in the Academy’s weekly report. You can see it (in the original French) here. Had the technology existed in 1896, the stories of audiences’ panicked reactions to the image of a train about to emerge from the screen would certainly have more of the ring of truth.


~ by Jared on March 8, 2023.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: