Fun Facts And Murky Legends About “The Arrival Of The Train At La Ciotat Station” (1896)

We’re all familiar with the Lumière brothers’ 50-second early film The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station (1895), which shows exactly what it says it does. Of all the early films screened for fascinated audiences back in the 1890s, Arrival of the Train has become the most legendary. For as we’ve all heard, when people saw that train on the screen steaming into the station for the first time–looking like it was about to roll right off the screen before vanishing outside the frame–the experience was so new and unexpected that they panicked, even fleeing the theater.

It’s easy to see why everyone loves this story. We can’t help smiling at those naïve early filmgoers, frightened to death of a simple moving image, in an age when three-hour action blockbusters are the order of the day and toddlers know how to watch movies on iPads. Just imagine if those delicate Victorians saw something like Aquaman or Mad Max: Fury Road!

An…accurate?…recreation from Hugo (2011).

Ah, but here’s some food for thought: What if the story of Arrival of the Train was actually more myth than fact? Could its legendary status actually be…just that, a legend?

First, here’s some facts about Arrival of the Train that are worth knowing:

  • The famed first public showing at the Grand Salon in Paris on December 28 1895 did not include Arrival of the Train.
  • There are actually three versions out there–that we know of.
  • The first two were filmed in 1896, the third in 1897.
  • Louis and Auguste Lumière were well known in La Ciotat, a small town on the French Mediterranean coast near Marseilles. Their family owned a 222 acre estate there which even had a couple miles of beach.
  • The first version was filmed between January 16 and February 3, 1896, when Louis Lumière stayed in La Ciotat. The second is unknown, although it was apparently taken sometime during the winter.
  • The third, most famous version (although one of the previous two floats around YouTube quite a bit) was taken in the summer of 1897.
  • This version actually includes several members of the Lumière family: Louis’s three-year-old daughter Suzanne (the little girl accompanied by two women), his own mother Joséphine (wearing a plaid cape), and his two-year-old niece Madeleine Koehler (holding an elderly lady’s hand), five-year-old nephew Marcel Koehler, and either Louis’s or Auguste’s wife–both women looked similar. Likely some employees of the Lumière estate were there too.
  • The title of this version (in French L’arrivée du train à La Ciotat) appears for the first time in the Lumière program announcements in the Lyon républicain on October 10, 1897. Prior to that, audiences probably saw the first or second versions.

If you compare the common floating-around-YouTube version to the most famous version, you can see how the Lumières finetuned their short scene. The 1896 film is taken in roughly the same area, but from a bit farther back and also farther from the waiting passengers (maybe they were asked to stay back from the camera). The 1897 film is closer to the tracks and taken from right amongst the crowd, as if you were standing there yourself. The train tracks also disappear more precisely in the left corner. The view of the platform on the other side and the mountains in the background is a bit more balanced and pleasing to the eye.

In my opinion, the Lumières put so many family members in the 1897 film because they’d know not to stare at the camera and would also provide a bit more action in the foreground. They apparently felt they needed to stage “reality” to get the most pleasing shot of “normal life” they could (and it probably didn’t occur to them that decades in the future this would be a cardinal sin of documentary filmmaking!).

Film history books have shared the tale of frightened Lumière screening audiences for decades. Lotte Eisner wrote: “…Spectators in the Grand Café involuntarily threw themselves back in their seats in fright, because Lumière’s giant locomotive pulling into the station seemingly ran toward them.” More recent histories state more of the same–Emmanuelle Toulet wrote in Birth of the Motion Picture: “Viewers all exhibited the same reactions: skeptical or blasé at the appearance of a static photographic projection, stupefied when it became animated, admiring at the sight of the wind in the trees and the agitation of the waves, and afraid when the train entering the station at La Ciotat seemed to throw itself at them.” Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film states: “Audiences ducked, screamed, or got up to leave. They were thrilled, as if on a rollercoaster ride.”

Surprisingly for such a common tale, almost no one has researched it in depth. One gamechanger (in my view) came out in 2004, when Martin Loiperdinger published his research paper “Lumière screening’s ‘Arrival Of The Train’: Cinema’s Founding Myth” in the journal The Moving Image. He came to the conclusion that reports of the “panicked” reactions over Arrival of the Train are largely a myth, and his reasoning is pretty convincing to me.

Arrivée de train en gare de la Ciotat by Louis Abel-Truchet on artnet
A poster by Louis Abel-Truchet–showing the train might leave the screen? Or showing the image is moving?

He points out that references to “terrified audiences” all seem to have been made years–often decades–after the fact. For instance, one of the earliest references was made by director and former projectionist Gustav Schönwald, who claimed: “The audience generally still played along then and reacted to all events in the films; they cried out when a horse reared, or fled from their seats because they thought the approaching train would run right into the hall. Well, one still had a completely naive attitude toward film at that time.” This statement was made in 1916, however, 20 full years after the fact.

He also scrutinized accounts of Lumière screenings from the 1890s, which describe Arrival of the Train in similar ways but don’t mention spectators reacting with panic. For instance, he quotes a scientific article by physicist Félix Regnault, where he wrote: “We repeat what has often been said about the nature and life of the scenes that Lumière presents us…The locomotive appears small at first, then immense, as if it were going to crush the audience; one has the impression of depth and relief, even though it is a single image that unfolds before our eyes.” Vienna Photographic Society president Ottomar Volkmer wrote in detail:

“A train station; from afar one can see the tiny locomotive of an express train approaching at full speed. It gets bigger and bigger, the chimney smoking, the only thing missing is the puffing and the rumble of the wheels. At last the train arrives, the locomotive appears tremendous; it seems as if it were going to run into the spectators. Then, all of a sudden, it vanishes to the left edge of the brightly illuminated screen, one can see the cars, the train stops; the conductors get off, the passengers step out on the platform to get on the train.”

Loeperdinger also examines one of the most famous accounts of an early film screening, written in 1896 by Russian journalist Maxim Gorky. Gorky’s take was, shall we say, quite Russian (I looked up Gorky’s full essay so we could have a longer quote–it’s something!):

“Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds right at you–watch out! It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice.

“But this, too, is but a train of shadows.

“Noiselessly, the locomotive disappears beyond the edge of the screen. The train comes to a stop, and grey figures silently emerge from the cars, soundlessly greet their friends, laugh, walk, run, bustle, and…are gone.”

It’s easy to see how you could skim these accounts and conclude that people are confusing images with reality. But they’re actually trying to convey how lifelike the footage is, and how much crispness and depth it has (especially since the Lumière screening camera used a type of deep focus). The angle also gave the odd illusion that the train was picking up speed as it steamed offscreen, although it was actually coming to a halt–a surprising effect for many, apparently. None of the accounts, however, actually mention spectators being panicked by the image of the train. Newspaper clippings about early film showings also don’t mention any audiences fleeing in fear, whether from a train or other footage. Here’s one mention from the Los Angeles Herald, July 7 1896–notice how it’s describing a very packed theater, where any sort of terrified scuffle would quickly become big news:

“Every seat in the theatre was sold ere the box office window was opened for the evening’s business. Standing room only was sold, and the purchasers of it formed a fresco around the entire circuit of the walls from box to box in addition to which some hundreds who applied for seats left, to come again later in the week. So much for what was expected of the management, and it can be said but in a few words, the immense audience was not disappointed…”

And there are plenty of clippings like this one, simply hailing the excitement and enthusiasm around the Lumières’ invention being in town:

The Daily Morning Journal and Courier, New Haven, CT, Sept. 19, 1896.

Most importantly, Loiperdinger also examines the practical, logistical details behind the famous Lumière screenings and their Paris venue. The Salon Indien, the basement billiard hall of the Grand Café, was only about 39′ x 26′ and was accessed by a single flight of steep stairs. There were about 180 chairs with standing room for around 40 people. Each Lumière show was about 20-25 minutes long and ran every half hour. Once the shows became wildly popular and began running at full capacity every day, large crowds lined up outside waiting their turn. This meant that after every screening over 200 people would have to stand up, leave their seats and make their way out of the hall as 200 more people poured down the stairs for the next show, all in ten minutes or less. There’s no way panicked, fleeing spectators would not cause massive chaos, if not a tragedy–and the papers would’ve covered every detail. But no kind of panic happened at the Salon Indien–thank heavens!

L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat - Wikipedia
An accurate promo poster from the time.

So according to the evidence Loiperdinger lays out, it seems that the legend of frightened audiences running from the train footage is just that, a legend. But maybe you’re thinking what I’m thinking: Do the audience necessarily have to be panicked? Maybe they reacted more with gasps, or simple sensations of surprise and bewilderment. After all, it doesn’t seem like the legend could spring entirely out of nowhere. And Loiperdinger does, in fact, say this could be a possibility:

“…These texts [describing initial screenings of Arrival of the Train] also reveal a grain of truth in the legend. Through their drastically graphic comparisons, they indicate that the perceptual experiences of contemporary audiences were clearly different from the reception of photographic realism, a characteristic of the perception of documentary films later. In 1896, we are dealing with spectators that have not yet developed viewing habits for moving images. It is the first time that they experience continuously moving projected photographic images, which surprise and bewilder them.”

Salon Lumière | NFSA
An interesting early advertising idea.

I’ll end with this quote by Kevin Brownlow from The Parade’s Gone By, which, while it does state that the “audience panic” story is true, also provides some practical food for thought:

“The story, so beloved of film historians. in which audiences scream, faint or stampede at the first glimpse of Lumière’s train may arouse suspicions of fantasy. For the public was not completely unprepared for the motion picture. Attempts to represent movement are as old as cave paintings. Shadowplays, images thrown in silhouette upon a white screen, preceded the theater itself. During the 18th and 19th centuries, various optical toys created an astonishingly convincing illusion of movement…

“But these movements were lateral. They usually occurred on one plane. The Zoetrope bird flapped energetically, and appeared to be traveling from right to left. The smoke in the lantern slide drifted upward. When Lumière’s train arrived at La Ciotat station in 1895, it made history. For it was photographed as it came toward, and past, the camera. The motion pcture had at last made it possible to show an object approaching an audience.

Lumière selected this head-on view in order to get the whole train into the picture; a side angle would have been inadequate. By doing this, he unconsciously added the one element missing from other attempts at simulating movement: dynamism.

Although it was peacefully steaming to a halt, a sight familiar to every member of the audience, Lumière’s train appeared to be hurtling out of the screen. Had they had time to think, the spectator’s common sense would have preserved their dignity. As it was, they scarcely had time to duck.

10 Film history ideas | film, film history, film strip

I’d like to give a shout out to historian Donna Hill for her assistance with the research on this project!

Sources:

Loiperdinger, Martin. “Lumière’s ‘Arrival of the Train’: Cinema’s Founding Myth.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, Spring 2004, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 89-118.
Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1990.
Cousins, Mark. The Story of Film. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004.
Leyda, Jay. Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Toulet, Emmanuelle. Birth of the Motion Picture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

19 thoughts on “Fun Facts And Murky Legends About “The Arrival Of The Train At La Ciotat Station” (1896)

  1. It’s easy to see why the myth stuck– there’s the usual “durr hurr, people in the past were SO naive” thing, but it’s also romantic, when you think about it. It suggests how powerful the illusion of film can be. It’s like hearing stories of audiences being awed by the opening shot of the Star Destroyer in the original Star Wars– we’re so desensitized to moving images and spectacle now that it’s easy to forget how much we take for granted.

    • For sure! We truly LIKE that story, it does say something about the power of film. (Have I mentioned what a huge SW fan I am, btw? Original trilogy only, of course. 😉 )

      • I just envy old audiences– they were not desensitized like we are now. (I love SW too! I love the OT most, but weirdly enough, I’ve come around on the PT, if only because it has heart and ambition– unlike a certain Disney trilogy I can name.)

        • The PT has aged a little better than expected, it’s silly (and I hate the midichlorian thing) but the visuals are spectacular. And weirdly enough, the dull political parts have some of the best lines…!

  2. Perhaps the Lumières themselves exaggerated the effect on audiences to drum up business? I can imagine a “barker” sort in front of the theater shouting hyperbolic claims to lure in an audience, like “Thrill at the approach of a mighty locomotive! Tremble as it nearly crushes you under it’s wheels!!!”

  3. One of the things that always amazes me about film blogging is finding out how much of the stuff I was told in my film studies classes is actually incorrect. Thanks for this–it was very interesting! 🙂

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