The Iron Horse
Dir: John Ford
Scr: Charles Kenyon, John Russell, Charles Darnton
Phot: George Schneiderman
Ed: Hettie Gray Baker
Premiere: Aug. 28, 1924
John Ford was one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, and a favorite of mine. He already had a mastery of the Western, having directed more than 50 films, mostly Westerns, before his assignment to The Iron Horse. The success of the film version of The Covered Wagon a year before prompted the creation of another big-budget film about the taming of the West. This was Ford’s first large-scale production – an epic of Manifest Destiny in which he perpetuated myths about the “Empire of the West” that remained lodged in films for decades.
The movie leans heavily on the assertion of authenticity. A title card proclaims that “Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is this pictorial history”. However, this is a reality in which good guys beat the bad guys, young love triumphs, and Indians are merely pesky plot devices.
The overarching subject is the creation of America’s transcontinental railroad, seen as a visionary project initiated by Lincoln, and semi-sacrosanct as a result.. It is seen as a boon and a necessity for the white pioneers who were eager to be gobbling up the landscape. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific grew towards each other, and the film outlines the adversities the railroad workers faced. Fighting climate, geography, and Indian attack, the workers are cast as heroic men who were agents of an irrepressible desire for “progress.”
The narrative deals only cursorily with the Chinese railroad workers of the Central Pacific, focusing on the Union Pacific’s amalgamation of Civil War veterans, Irish, and Italian workers. The story progresses on several levels, foregrounded by the romance of our hero Davy (George O’Brien -- this film would typecast him as a Western star) and Miriam (Madge Bellamy). Davy enters the story as a Pony Express rider who takes refuge on the Union Pacific train, the crew of which he joins readily. There is a villain – a maimed white man who masquerades as a renegade Cheyenne (the Pawnee, who save the day at film’s end, are allies).
What makes Ford such an extraordinary filmmaker? He seems to know exactly what to put on film and how to frame it. He keeps his cuts and pans to a minimum, focusing on the human figures in the frame. He keeps the characters’ relationships clear, and knows just how long a sequence needs to be to convey its meaning. His editing is unobtrusive, drawing no attention to itself. Ford serves the story with uncanny ability. At a Ford film, you are never confused and always entertained.
The Iron Horse was the top money-maker for 1924. Ford went on create the greatest Westerns on film – Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Wagonmaster, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. As his career progressed, he began to question and deconstruct the concept of Manifest Destiny and white superiority in films such as Fort Apache, The Searchers, and Cheyenne Autumn.
The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Peter Pan.’