LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN
(Edwin S. Porter, 1903, USA, 6m, BW)
Life of an American Fireman (1903)
1903 ‧ Black and white/Indie film ‧ 6 mins
Life of an American Fireman is a short, silent film Edwin S. Porter made for the Edison Manufacturing Company. It was shot late in 1902 and distributed early in 1903.
Initial release: January 1903 (USA)
Directors: Edwin S. Porter, George S. Fleming
Screenplay: Edwin S. Porter
Production company: Edison Studios
Producer: Edwin S. Porter
Cinematography: Edwin S. Porter
Life of an American Fireman is a short, silent film Edwin S. Porter made for the Edison Manufacturing Company. It was shot late in 1902 and distributed early in 1903. One of the earliest American narrative films, it depicts the rescue of a woman and child from a burning building. It bears notable similarities to the 1901 English short film Fire!, directed by James Williamson.
Life of an American Fireman is notable for its synthesis of numerous innovations in film technique that had occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically, Porter builds a continuous narrative over seven scenes, rendered in a total of nine shots:
The Fireman's Vision of an Imperilled [sic] Woman and Child.
A Close View of a New York Fire Alarm Box.
The Interior of the Sleeping Quarters in the Fire House.
Interior of the Engine House.
The Apparatus Leaving the Engine House.
Off to the Fire.
The Arrival at the Fire.
This particular construction of time and space was not invented by Porter, but he did maximize its use and further develop it in his more famous film of 1903, The Great Train Robbery. Some film scholars, point out that this film represents the social role of firefighters was changing at the time.
The Life of an American Fireman
Filmed in 1902, released in early 1903. Edison Films, February 1903, pp. 2-3.
In giving this description to the public, we unhesitatingly claim for it the strongest motion picture attraction ever attempted in this length of film. It will be difficult for the exhibitor to conceive the amount of work involved and the number of rehearsals necessary to turn out a film of this kind. We were compelled to enlist the services of the fire departments of four different cities, New York, Newark, Orange, and East Orange, N.J., and about 300 firemen appear in the various scenes of this film.
From the first conception of this wonderful series of pictures it has been our aim to portray "Life of an American Fireman" without exaggeration, at the same time embodying the dramatic situations and spectacular effects which so greatly enhance a motion picture performance.
The record work of the modern American fire department is known throughout the universe, and the fame of the American fireman is echoed around the entire world. He is known to be the most expert, as well as the bravest, of all fire fighters. This film faithfully and accurately depicts his thrilling and dangerous life, emphasizing the perils he subjects himself to when human life is at stake. We show the world in this film the every movement of the brave firemen and their perfectly trained horses from the moment the men leap from their beds in response to an alarm until the fire is extinguished and a woman and child are rescued after many fierce battles with flame and smoke. Below we give a description of each of the seven scenes which make up this most wonderful of all fire scenes, "Life of an American Fireman."
The Life of an American FiremanScene 1. -- The Fireman's Vision of an Imperilled Woman and Child.
The fire chief is seated at his office desk. He has just finished reading his evening paper and has fallen asleep. The rays of an incandescent light rest upon his features with a subdued light, yet leaving his figure strongly silhouetted against the wall of his office. The fire chief is dreaming, and the vision of his dream appears in a circular portrait upon the wall. It is a mother putting her baby to bed, and the inference is that he dreams of his own wife and child. He suddenly awakes and paces the floor in a nervous state of mind, doubtless thinking of the various people who may be in danger from fire at the moment. Here we dissolve the picture to the second scene.
The Life of an American FiremanScene 2. -- A Close View of a New York Fire Alarm Box.
Shows lettering and every detail in the door and apparatus for turning in an alarm. A figure then steps in front of the box, hastily opens the door and pulls the hook, thus sending the electric current which alarms hundreds of firemen and brings to the scene of the fire the wonderful apparatus of a great city's fire department. Again dissolving the picture, we show the third scene.
The Life of an American FiremanScene 3. -- The Interior of the Sleeping Quarters in the Fire House.
A long row of beds, each containing a fireman peacefully sleeping, is shown. Instantly upon the ringing of the alarm the firemen leap from their beds and, putting on their clothes in the record time of five seconds, a grand rush is made for a large circular opening in the floor, through the center of which runs a brass pole. The first fireman to reach the pole seizes it and, like a flash, disappears through the opening. He is instantly followed by the remainder of the force. This in itself makes a most stirring scene. We again dissolve the scene, to the interior of the apparatus house.
The Life of an American FiremanScene 4. -- Interior of the Engine House.
Shows horses dashing from their stalls and being hitched to the apparatus. This is perhaps the most thrilling and in all the most wonderful of the seven scenes of the series, it being absolutely the first motion picture ever made of a genuine interior hitch. As the men come down the pole described in the above scene, and land upon the floor in lightning-like rapidity, six doors in the rear of the engine house, each heading a horse-stall, burst open simultaneously and a huge fire horse, with head erect and eager for the dash to the scene of the conflagration, rushes from each opening. Going immediately to their respective harness, they are hitched in the almost unbelievable time of five seconds and are ready for their dash to the fire. The men hastily scamper upon the trucks and horse carts and one by one the fire machines leave the house, drawn by eager, prancing steeds. Here we dissolve again to the fifth scene.
The Life of an American FiremanScene 5. -- The Apparatus Leaving the Engine House.
We show a fine exterior view of engine house, the great doors swinging open, and the apparatus coming out. This is a most imposing scene. The great horses leap to their work, the men adjust their fire hats and coats, and smoke begins pouring from the engines as they pass our camera. Here we dissolve and show the sixth scene.
The Life of an American FiremanScene 6. -- Off to the Fire.
In this scene we present the best fire run ever shown. Almost the entire fire department of the large city of Newark N.J., was placed at our disposal and we show countless pieces of apparatus, engines, hook-and-ladders, horse towers, horse carriages, etc., rushing down a broad street at top speed, the horses straining every nerve and evidently eager to make a record run. Great clouds of smoke pour from the stacks of the engines as they pass our camera, thus giving an impression of genuineness to the entire series. Dissolving again we show the seventh scene.
Scene 7. -- The Arrival at the Fire.
In this wonderful scene we show the entire fire department, as described above, arriving at the scene of action. An actual burning building is in the center foreground. On the right background the fire department is seen coming at great speed. Upon the arrival of the different apparatus, the engines are ordered to their places, hose is quickly run out from the carriages, ladders adjusted to the windows and streams of water poured into the burning structure. At this crucial moment comes the great climax of the series.
The Life of an American FiremanWe dissolve to the interior of the building and show a bed chamber with a woman and child enveloped in flame and suffocating smoke. The woman rushes back and forth in the room endeavoring to escape, and in her desperation throws open the window and appeals to the crowd below. She is finally overcome by the smoke and falls upon the bed. At this moment the door is smashed in by an axe in the hands of a powerful fire hero. Rushing into the room he tears the burning draperies from the window and smashing out the entire window frame, orders his comrades to run up a ladder. Immediately the ladder appears, he seizes the prostrate form of the woman and throws it over his shoulder as if it were an infant, and quickly descends to the ground.
The Life of an American FiremanWe now dissolve to the exterior of the burning building. The frantic mother having returned to consciousness, and clad only in her night clothes, is kneeling on the ground imploring the firemen to return for her child. Volunteers are called for and the same fireman who rescued the mother quickly steps out and offers to return for the babe. He is given permission to once more enter the doomed building and without hesitation rushes up the ladder, enters the window and after a breathless wait, in which it appears he must have been overcome by smoke, he appears with the child on his arm and returns safely to the ground. The child, being released and upon seeing its mother, rushes to her and is clasped in her arms, thus making a most realistic and touching ending of the series.
The film was long considered important for its unusual editing style, being considered the earliest example of cross-cutting, notably during the final scenes of the rescue of the woman and her child. On the basis of this, Porter was hailed as an innovative editor. However, subsequent research by the paper print project at the Library of Congress suggested that the cross-cut version was re-edited at some unspecified time after the film's 1903 release, and that in its original form it used few, if any, of the pioneering edits claimed. As originally released, the interior point of view of the burning house is shown first and completed. Then the exact same action repeating itself is shown again from the exterior. Charles Musser has chronicled the history of this controversy in Before the Nickelodeon and concluded that the paper-print version containing the repetitive action was the one released in 1903.
Porter's sequential continuity editing links several shots to form a narrative of firemen responding to a house fire. They leave the station with their horse drawn pumper, arrive on the scene, and effect the safe rescue of a woman from the burning house. But wait, she tells them of her child yet asleep in the burning bedroom.
It would be difficult for the exhibitor to conceive the amount of work involved and the number of rehearsals necessary to produce a film of this description. We were compelled to enlist the services of the fire departments of four different cities, New York, Newark, Orange, and East Orange, N. J., and about 300 firemen appear in the various scenes. From the first conception of this wonderful series of pictures it was our aim to portray the "Life of an American Fireman" without exaggeration, and at the same time to embody the dramatic situations and spectacular effects which so greatly enhance a motion picture performance.
The work of American fire departments is known throughout the world, and the fame of the American fireman is echoed around the entire world. He is known to be the most expert, as well as the bravest, of all fire fighters. This film faithfully and accurately depicts his thrilling and dangerous calling and emphasizes the perils he encounters when human life is at stake, every movement of the brave firemen and their perfectly trained horses from the moment the men leap from their beds in response to an alarm until the fire is extinguished and a woman and child are rescued after many fierce battles with flame and smoke.
Porter’s ambitious Life of an American Fireman, an early example of narrative story-telling, must have been exciting back in 1903, but today, used as we are to rapid-fire editing designed to achieve a sense of excitement and urgency, the film serves more as a curio than anything else. That’s not to say it’s without charm. The choice of camera position to capture the racing horse-drawn fire engines is a good one, but after the fourth or fifth chariot has passed the camera it gets a bit dull. Despite this, Life of an American Fireman is, for its time, both groundbreaking and sophisticated. It holds an important position in the history of cinema and is therefore worth a look by anyone interested in the history of film.
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