Desperate Poaching Affray
I'm spoilt for choice this year - 1903 gives us a whole bunch of groundbreaking early films including Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery", credited with creating much of the grammar of film narrative and editing, the Sheffield Photographic Company's "Daring Daylight Burglary", equally inventive and a few months older, George A Smith's "Mary Jane's Mishap", in which the director's wife plays a ditzy housemaid and gets spectacularly blown up the chimney when trying to light the stove with paraffin, and Cecil Hepworth's "Alice in Wonderland", longest British film of its time at around 10 minutes.
The one I've picked, though, is William Haggar's "Desperate Poaching Affray". Perhaps I like this film because it's a lot like films I made as a teenager, but with a cast of more than three, who are less afraid of getting hurt.
Essentially it's a simple chase film in which two poachers are caught in the act and pursued through woods, fields and ponds by several policemen and (presumably) gamekeepers. The poachers shoot at the gamekeepers, the gamekeepers shoot at the poachers (never mind that the policemen are in the way), all of them get into a big fight first in the woods, then in the middle of a pond, before the poachers are captured and led off - all for the sake of a pheasant or two, presumably.
What makes this film stand out is the wholeheartedness with which the performers throw themselves into the action - often literally. The fighting is convincing and dynamic, even when the performers are waist-deep in muddy water. None of the theatricals or over-emphasised gestures of "Scrooge" or the Melies films, these guys are doing it like they mean it.