A couple of bandits tie up an operator at the telegraph office and force him to send the message to a train to stop at a water tank. There, the criminals board the train, kill the crew and stop the waggon. All the passengers are then robbed before the bandits escape with their horses. However, the people start a search and manage to find and kill the criminals in the woods.
One of the first examples of the western genre, "The Great Train Robbery" is the movie equivalent of the cave paintings in Lascaux: it has more of a symbolic (historical) value than a modern one that still speaks to the audience of today. Just like most of films from the early era of cinema, "Robbery" also displays rudimentary film techniques which were not still developed at that time: it is directed in static wide shots, with no cross-cutting to elaborate the characters' reactions in typical shot-reverse shot fashion that is known today, yet it still made a shy progress on two fronts, by encouraging a "trust" in the viewers to "fill in the gaps" between two different scenes (when the dancing people are interrupted, it is obvious they are informed about the robbery, and it all fits), and for including a highly unusual meta-film touch in the final scene, where the bandit shoots six times into the camera, at the audience. Director Edwin S. Porter can thus be credited with allowing the movie to expand its narrative scope, albeit still in a very simplistic manner compared to today.