It’s a Bird, It’s a Train, It’s a Common Misconception

When I was a kid, I thought that deer could fly. Now to be fair, I had been fed some propaganda about flying reindeer for years, which translated into a very deep and very serious fear of a deer jumping through my second story bedroom window.

I wasn’t scared that it would eat me or steal me or do anything, really. Just that it would be there when I woke up.

What, me worry?

Deer cannot jump, nor can they fly. (Though they do break into people’s homes sometimes OKAY.) As children, we all believe things that, looking back, were obviously false.

Even as adults, there are so many common misconceptions that get legs and never disappear. For example: Napoleon wasn’t particularly short. Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.” George Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart said “Play it, Sam,” not “Play it again, Sam.”

Which brings us to another movie myth that needs debunking.

There is a famous story out there about one of the first ever motion pictures, a 50-second French film called “L’Arrivee d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.” As the title implies, it is about the arrival of a train in the station de la Ciotat, whatever that is.

The story goes that when the movie first ran in 1896, people were so alarmed by the image of a train barreling towards the camera that they ran screaming from the theater. They thought the train was going to break through the screen and run them all over.

And, frankly, why wouldn’t they?

As the Russian author Maxim Gorky years later wrote about the moment, “Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds straight 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.”

Damn, Gorky – lacerated flesh?

If you were invited to see some newfangled technology and instead saw a train approaching you at full speed, would you wait to make sure it was just a movie – a concept you were heretofore unfamiliar with? Or would you bail first and ask questions later?

If it’s too hard to imagine living in a world without movies, perhaps think back to the first time you went to an IMAX or – god forbid – one of those horrid 4-D movies that sprays you with water. Were you not a little shook?

The story of the instantaneous and communal departure of the audience at “L’Arrivee d’un train” has become an enduring anecdote about the power of film and the connection a movie can elicit with the audience.

One problem: it’s not true.

About ten years ago– 120 years after the release of the film – German media historian Martin Loiperdinger dug into the story. He looked at newspaper stories and historical accounts from the time and found … nothing. The film received some critical acclaim, along with the nine other shorts that accompanied it. There was no coverage of a mass exodus from the theater or any alarm at all.

Loiperdinger calls it “cinema’s founding myth.” In his paper, Loiperdinger explains that the quality of the film made it impossible to mistake for reality, and found that the story came about decades after the film first aired.

The story emerged, settled down and decided to stay awhile in part because it’s such a compelling narrative for filmmakers who are enamored with the suggestive power of their medium. But, like everything in Europe, there was a degree of class warfare in play too.

Marx my words.

Motion pictures were just becoming widely available when this movie was shown around Europe. Sure, the European version of the East Coast Elite Lamestream Media knew the difference between a movie and reality, but these Country Bumpkins were so scared! They fled like lil’ babies they were so scared! They don’t know what a motion picture is! What dunces! We must keep the art by and for the upper class!

(Again, let he who hasn’t screamed during an IMAX about sharks throw the first stone.)

And it’s possible that the audience over-reacted a bit, sure. To be fair, according to some historians, there had been a massive train derailment at Montmartre station just two months prior. The train had broken through a brick wall and plunged into the street. Maybe, for all the audience members knew, breaking the fourth wall was a literal term.

This may be just another case of the lines between reality and fiction blurring over time. It may be a case of the rich haughtily retelling history in a way that makes them look better. It may be all those annoying art majors from college clinging to a story that validates their ~calling.~ Or it may be a mix of all those things.

Either way, lock your windows. You never know when a train may come plummeting through — or a deer may decide your bedroom looks cozier than the bushes.


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