• Director: James Williamson
  • Year: 1901
  • Runtime: 5m
  • Available on YouTube

I am pleased to report that the first film to link together multiple shots into a narrative is an action-packed stunt spectacular set on the South coast of England.

It’s on the shorter side of action movie length, coming in at 5 minutes, but it makes the most of each of those minutes.

Except, it has to be said, minute number two.

At the end of minute one, Williamson has wasted no time in getting us to the action. A policeman has discovered the fire and the fire department has sprung into life and is bringing out carriage number one. What is on this carriage?

It’s a ladder! An excellent idea!

Then we see the preparation of carriage number two. This time there’s a horse! That seems smart. Gets them to the fire quicker. What are we bringing on this carriage, though?

Oh. It’s another ladder.

OK, we get it. There are horses. We’re using ladders. Let’s get back to the fire!

Instead, we cut to another horse (actually two this time).

This, I think, was a major mistake in pacing from our director. It feels like he had the horses and he wanted to use them without stopping to ask himself if they added anything to the narrative.

In his defence, the horses are pulling a carriage full of men this time, so there is a nice little twist there but in my humble opinion this is not enough of a change to justify this additional preparation scene.

It is minor critique, though, and Williamson gets us back on track with a high speed chase down the high street, and then we get to the real human drama.

We find ourselves in a smoke filled, claustrophobic room and the juxtaposition between this and the open street we just witnessed is a masterclass in editing. You can feel the smoke trapping you. Top marks.

Which makes the heroism of the Hove fire department, busting through windows, hosing down fires, and carrying out unconscious victims, all the more impressive. In my view, this scene is the real climax of the film.

Outside, we witness more rescues. The ladders, introduced at the end of minute one, are put to full use in minute four, which is satisfying.

Then there is a moment of levity when two of the occupants climb down the ladder to safety, completely forgetting about occupant number three who then has to jump out of the window onto a jumping sheet.

There’s no sound, unfortunately, but we can imagine them shouting “Hey, wait for me!”


Then it ends. The ending is rather sudden and we just have to assume that all the people we saw rescued was everyone that was in the house.

And also that the fire was eventually put out.

Other than the minor issues with minute two and the slightly unsatisfying ending, what we have here is an exceptional little movie. I have no doubt it had the turn of the century audiences on the edge of their seats. Highly recommended.

See more from my study of The History of Cinema.