Although the earliest films in cinema were done in one shot without any editing, cutting is so fundamental to the medium that it began to emerge relatively quickly. There was a basic disparity between the amount of film that a camera's magazine could hold and the evolving desire of filmmakers and audiences for longer and more elaborate story films. Only by editing shots together could longer narrative forms be achieved. A Trip to the Moon (1914), directed by Georges Méliès (1861–1938), for example, creates a narrative by assembling a series of scenes, with each scene filmed in a single shot. The edit points occur between the scenes, in order to link them together.
Life of an American Fireman (1903), directed by Edwin S. Porter (1870–1941), presents the same narrative events—a fireman rescuing a woman from a burning building—as seen first from inside the building and then from camera setups outside the building, repeating the same narrative action. From the standpoint of continuity as it would develop in cinema, this duplication of event was a deviant use of editing, although other early films feature this kind of overlapping action. It demonstrated, however, the manner in which cutting could impose its own laws of time and space on narrative.
Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) follows a band of Western outlaws robbing a train and interrupts the chronology of the action with a cutaway showing the rescue of a telegraph operator whom the outlaws earlier had tied up. Following the cutaway, Porter introduces a second line of action, showing the roundup of a posse and the pursuit of the outlaws. Film historians commonly cite this as an early example of parallel editing, showing two lines of narrative action happening at the same time, although Porter's use of this device here is ambiguous. It is not clear that he means for the parallel editing to establish that the two lines of action are in fact happening simultaneously. In other respects, editing in The Great Train Robbery remains very primitive, with cuts used only to join scenes and with no intercutting inside a scene.
In contrast with Porter, D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) freed the camera from the conventions of stage perspective by breaking the action of scenes into many different shots and editing these according to the emotional and narrative rhythms of the action. Griffith explored the capabilities of editing in the films he made at Biograph studio from 1908 to 1913, primarily the use of continuity matches to link shots smoothly and according to their dramatic and kinesthetic properties. Cutting from full-figure shots to a close-up accentuated the drama, and matching the action on a cut as a character walks from an exterior into a doorway and, in the next shot, enters an interior set enabled Griffith to join filming locations that were physically separated but adjacent in terms of the time and place of the story.
Griffith became famous for his use of crosscutting in the many "rides to the rescue" that climax his films. In The Girl and Her Trust (1912), for example, Griffith cuts back and forth from a pair of robbers, who have abducted the heroine and are escaping on a railroad pump car, to the hero, who is attempting to overtake them by train. By intercutting these lines of action, Griffith creates suspense, and by shortening the lengths of the shots, he accelerates the pace. Crosscutting furnished a foundation for narrative in cinema, and there is little structural difference between what Griffith did here and what a later filmmaker such as Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) does in Jaws (1975). Griffith extended his fluid use of continuity editing and crosscutting in his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). The latter film is a supreme example of crosscutting, which is here used to tell four stories set in different time periods in simultaneous fashion.
The Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) wrote that Griffith's crosscutting embodied the essential class disparity of a capitalist society. He meant that the lines of action in Griffith's editing remained separated, like the classes under capitalism. Inspired by the October Revolution, Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers developed in the 1910s and 1920s a more radical approach to editing than Griffith had countenanced. Griffith had championed facial expression and used close-ups to showcase it, but Lev Kuleshov (1899–1970), teaching at the Moscow Film School, proclaimed that editing itself could essentially create facial expression and the impression of an acting performance. The "Kuleshov effect" has become part of the basic folklore of cinema. Kuleshov allegedly took a strip of film showing an actor's emotionless face and intercut it with shots of other objects—a bowl of soup, a woman grieving at a gravestone, a child playing with a toy—and the edited sequence (according to Kuleshov) led audiences to remark on the skill of the actor, who looked hungry when he saw the soup, sad at the sight of the woman, and happy when he saw the child. Because the face remained unchanged, Kuleshov announced that his
Sergei Eisenstein is a wholly unique figure in cinema history. He was a filmmaker and a theoretician of cinema who made films and wrote voluminously about their structure and the nature of cinema. Both his filmmaking and his writing (which fills several volumes) have been tremendously influential.
Frustrated by the creative limitations of his work in the theater, Eisenstein turned to cinema and in 1925 completed his first feature, Stachka ( Strike ), which depicted the plight of oppressed workers. Eisenstein's next two films are the ones by which he remains best known, Bronenosets Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925) and Oktyabr ( Ten Days That Shook the World and October , 1927), each depicting political rebellion against czarist rule.
Eisenstein believed that editing was the foundation of film art. For Eisenstein, meaning in cinema lay not in the individual shot but only in the relationships among shots established by editing. Translating a Marxist political perspective into the language of cinema, Eisenstein referred to his editing as "dialectical montage" because it aimed to expose the essential contradictions of existence and the political order. Because conflict was essential to the political praxis of Marxism, the idea of conflict furnished the logic of Eisenstein's shot changes, which gives his silent films a rough, jagged quality. His shots do not combine smoothly, as in the continuity editing of D. W. Griffith and Hollywood cinema, but clash and bang together. Thus, his montages were eminently suited to depictions of violence, as in Strike , Potemkin , and Ten Days . In his essays Eisenstein enumerated the numerous types of conflict that he found essential to cinema. These included conflicts among graphic elements in a composition and between shots, and conflict of time and space created in the editing process and by filming with different camera speeds.
As a political filmmaker, Eisenstein was interested in guiding the viewer's emotions and thought processes. Thus, his metric and rhythmic montages were supplemented with what he called "tonal" and "intellectual" montage, in which he aimed for subtle emotional effects and to convey more abstract ideas. Ten Days represents Eisenstein's most extensive explorations of intellectual montage, as he creates a series of visual metaphors to characterize the political figures involved in the October Revolution, such as shots that compare Alexander Kerensky with a peacock.
Stalin's consolidation of power in the 1930s accompanied cultural and artistic repression, which forced Eisenstein, now criticized as a formalist, to recant the radical montage style of his silent films. Thus his last films, Aleksandr Nevskiy ( Alexander Nevsky , 1938) and Ivan Groznyy I and II ( Ivan the Terrible Part One  and Two ) lack the aggressive, visionary editing of his work in the silent period. Although he completed only seven features, these contain some of the most famous sequences ever committed to film, such as the massacre on the Odessa steps in Potemkin . Together, Eisenstein's films and essays represent the supreme expression of the capabilities and power of montage in the cinema.
Stachka ( Strike , 1925), Bronenosets Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925), Oktyabr ( Ten Days That Shook the World and October , 1927), Ivan Groznyy I ( Ivan the Terrible Part One , 1944), Ivan Groznyy II ( Ivan the Terrible Part Two , 1958)
Bordwell, David. The Cinema of Eisenstein . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form . Translated by Jay Leyda. New York: Harvest, 1969.
——. The Film Sense . Translated by Jay Leyda. New York: Harvest, 1969.
Leyda, Jay, ed. Film Essays and a Lecture . New York and Washington: Praeger, 1970.
Taylor, Richard. October . London: British Film Institute, 2002.
experiment proved that editing had created the meanings viewers attributed to the sequence.
While it is extremely doubtful that Kuleshov's experiment worked exactly as he claimed (for one thing, it is likely that the actor's face actually contained an ambiguous expression since Kuleshov had taken the footage from an existing film), the Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s followed Kuleshov's lead in fashioning a much more aggressive method of editing than what they had found in the films of Griffith. Eisenstein believed that editing or montage was the essence of cinema, and beginning with his first film, Stachka ( Strike , 1925), and continuing most famously with Bronenosets Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925), he created an editing style that he called "dialectical montage" that was abrupt and jagged and did not aim for the smooth continuity of Griffith-style cutting. The massacre of townspeople on the Odessa Steps in Potemkin exemplifies the principles of dialectical montage and is possibly the most famous montage in the history of cinema. The jaggedness of Eisenstein's editing in this sequence captures the emotional and physical violence of the massacre, but he also aimed to use editing to suggest ideas, a style he termed "intellectual montage." The massacre sequence concludes with three shots of statues of stone lions edited to look like a single lion rising up and roaring, embodying the idea of the wrath of the people and the voice of the revolution.
Although Eisenstein's sound films, Aleksandr Nevskiy ( Alexander Nevsky , 1938) and Ivan Groznyy I and II ( Ivan the Terrible Part One  and Two ), do not exhibit the radical editing of his silent films, Eisenstein's approach to montage—the extreme way he would fracture the action into tiny, brief shots—proved to be tremendously influential. The gun battles in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch , edited by Lou Lombardo (1932–2002), was quite consciously based on Eisenstein, and the hyperactive editing of much contemporary film, with edit points only a few frames apart, is part of Eisenstein's legacy.
The dominant style of editing practiced during the classical Hollywood period, from the 1930s to the 1950s, was quite different from Soviet-style montage. It is sometimes called "invisible editing" because the edit points are so recessive and so determined by the imperative of seamless continuity. Hollywood-style editing carefully matches inserts and close-ups to the physical relations of characters and objects as seen in a scene's master shot, and follows the 180-degree rule (keeping camera setups on one side of the line of action) so that the right–left coordinates of screen geography remain consistent across shot changes. Cut points typically follow the flow of dialogue, and shot–reverse shot editing uses the eyeline match to connect characters who are otherwise shown separately in close-ups. This style of editing assured the utmost clarity about the geography of the screen world and the communication of essential story information. For these reasons, it is sometimes called "point-of-view" editing or "continuity editing." That it became the standard editing style of the Hollywood system is evident in the fact that it can be found in films across genres, directors, and studios.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, films of the French New Wave introduced a more aggressive editing style than was typical of the Hollywood studios. À bout de souffle ( Breathless , 1960), directed by Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), used jump cuts that left out parts of the action to produce discontinuities between shots, and American directors a decade later assimilated this approach in pictures such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969). As a result, by the 1970s the highly regulated point-of-view editing used in classical Hollywood began to break down as an industry standard, and the cutting style of American films became more eclectic, exhibiting a mixture of classical continuity and more abrupt, collage-like editing styles.