Posted in 1900s, Movies, Silent film

Happy 120th birthday, Life of an American Fireman!

Life of an American Fireman, filmed in late 1902 and released January 1903, stands as one of the very earliest narrative films in the U.S. Prior, most films were actualities, little vignettes of daily life, instead of having actual storylines like Georges Méliès’s pioneering French films. That all began changing with this short classic directed by the legendary pioneer Edwin S. Porter.

For many decades, Fireman was considered revolutionary on account of its editing techniques, namely being the first alleged known use of cross-cutting in the final scene. However, this was later proven to be a false claim, based on researching the paper print at the Library of Congress.

The original version contained few, if any, of the cross-cuts seen in the version which was best-known for a long time. E.g., the inside POV of the burning house appears first, then repeats exactly with an exterior POV, instead of cutting back and forth between the perspectives. Thus, the film was edited at some point, though the exact date is unknown.

According to film historian Charles Musser, author of Before the Nickelodeon and an expert on Edwin S. Porter, the version first seen by January 1903 audiences was the one with repeated actions and scenes, not the cross-cut version.

In 2016, Fireman was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” I first saw it on the excellent 4-disc set Edison: The Invention of the Movies, which contains films from 1889–1918. It’s also available on Treasures from American Film Archives, another 4-disc set which is the first of a currently six-part series showcasing early films.

As Charles Musser explains, this film represents how firefighters’ social role was changing in that era. It also has much in common with the 1901 British film Fire!, directed by James Williamson.

Fireman was considered a lost film until 1944, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired a 35mm print from Pathé.

The story is rather simple. A fireman dreams of a woman putting her little girl to bed, and shortly thereafter an alarm sounds. All the firemen rush out of bed and dress, slide down the pole, and get into their waiting horse-drawn firetrucks. Everyone lines up in the streets to watch as they race to the rescue.

The woman inside the burning house passes out on her bed right before the fireman gets inside. He carries her down the ladder by the window he axed open, then carries her daughter to safety. Once everyone is out, he and another fireman begin putting out the fire.

In the next scene, the same woman begs at the window for help, and the fireman goes up the ladder to rescue her. He then goes back up for her daughter. This was cross-cut together in the later edit.

Original version without cross-cutting.


Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

One thought on “Happy 120th birthday, Life of an American Fireman!

  1. Glad FIREMAN was found during the Second World War.

    And it is interesting about these interior/exterior shots and the cut-scenes which were added later

    [not so unlike the jump-cuts a lot of YouTubers now appear to favour].

    And it does get into how powerful and portentous dreams are.

    Great collection – the Edison!

    [I had thought that Thomas Edison was more into the audio side of moviemaking than the video side – or did they use him as a syndedoche for a Great Inventor…?]


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