See the moving picture


The Anecdotal Arrival

Arrivée d’un train en gare à la Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat)

Louis Lumière, France, ca. 1895

The Russian writer Maxim Gorky saw Arrivée d’un train when he ventured into “the kingdom of the shadows” to see a cinématographe program in June 1896 and rhapsodized over the experience:

Suddenly there is a click, everything vanishes, and a railway train appears on the screen. It darts like an arrow straight towards you—watch out! It seems as though it is about to rush into the darkness where you are sitting and reduce you to a mangled sack of skin . . . and destroy this hall and this building, so full of wine, women, music, and vice, and turn it into fragments and dust.

Did audiences really flinch when the train came barreling out of the background during the first showings of Arrivée d’un train? It would seem that pioneer moviemakers were as fond of perpetuating such myths as contemporary journalists were. Some commentators find the impulse quite natural: After all, why should the moviemaker give up the status of “magician” by revealing the technical secrets of his trade? It’s not surprising, then, that instead of promoting their inventions as mere demonstrations of scientific ingenuity, many of the first moviemakers were wont to combine business sense not with educational outreach, but rather with show-business acumen: Edison’s vitascope was promoted as “The Greatest Electrical Novelty in the World,” the Lumières’ cinématographe as “The Greatest Attraction of the Century.”

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