Long regarded as the first film ever made, we know now that Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1896) was screened a few months after the Lumiere Brothers held the world’s first film screening at a cafe in Paris. Despite the fact that it was not the first film ever made, it still holds tremendous metaphorical importance for film studies.
The short film (back then they were called “motion pictures”) shows a train rolling into La Ciotat Station in Paris. This simple event illustrates the Lumieres’ interest in what they called actualities, brief moments of reality captured on film. The Lumieres filmed somewhat mundane everyday events, such as in Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895), The Photographical Congress Arrives in Lyon (1895), and A Baby’s Meal (1895). All are under one minute long and depict exactly what their titles describe. The work of the Lumieres was a precursor to the documentary films that would arise in later years, and epitomized one of two major styles of filmmaking in early cinema. The second style was best exemplified by the fantastical motion pictures of George Melies (the precursor to fiction films).
In film studies, the overemphasis on Arrival of a Train as the starting point of cinema, even after we now know that it was in fact not the first film, is because of its subject matter. There is an enticing lyricism that film, perhaps the most mechanical and industrial art form in history, would be born from a short novelty picture of a train rolling into a station. The arrival of the train signifies the arrival of the new art form, and the train, the most salient and striking symbol of the industrial revolution, serves as a fitting mascot for this new mechanical art. Despite the fact that its historical importance has been displaced, Arrival of a Train still holds immense metaphorical significance in the story of the cinema.
For more information, see:
Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. 2nd edition.