This epic western from 1924 is principally known for being the film that made John Ford’s name, though in truth he’d already directed around 50 other silent works – many of which were subsequently lost – before starting work on The Iron Horse. It’s a patriotic and idealistic account of the construction of the first transcontinental railroad across the US during the 1860s, and it begins by contrasting two characters: an engineer who is passionate about the possibility of coast-to-coast rail travel, and a contractor who is skeptical and does not believe it can be done. The project goes ahead, though, after it is given a blessing by no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln (played by Reno businessman Charles Edward Bull), but there are countless obstacles along the way, all rigorously detailed by Ford, a man clearly in thrall of the sheer willpower of the railroad workers that managed to complete this immense task. The film’s most exciting moments dramatise Native American raids on trains and workers – the most one-sided and conventional western scenes on show here, though it must be said that they were less conventional in 1924 than they seem today – but there are also fascinating sequences that depict the deconstruction and reconstruction of entire towns as whole communities of employees move across the country, and also oddly hypnotic scenes that show little other than railway sleeper after railway sleeper being laid, or rivets repeatedly being driven into the wood. Ford was keen to pay tribute to the men and women who worked hard to make trans-continental travel possible across the US (particularly the Irish, Italian and Chinese migrant coolies, whose efforts are rewarded with a heavy dose of racial stereotyping), and his film is a celebration of their labour as well as their sense of community; most of the characters in this film are working towards the common good, with the main baddie being a capitalist shark who – rather ridiculously – moonlights as the murderous chief of a raiding Pawnee tribe.
If you think that a 150-minute film about the construction of a railroad sounds a little boring, then I should point out that there are regular diversions away from the main narrative. Ford briefly attempts to shoehorn famous figures such as Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok into his story, for example, and as with pretty much any release of the time there’s a love story thrown in for good measure (at the behest of producers Fox). This lends the film a hero (George O’Brien) and adds some narrative propulsion away from all that construction work; in fact it’s quite well played, and I liked the performances by the clean-cut O’Brien and his co-star Madge Bellamy. However, ultimately, this is a film about an idea and the work that was needed to make it become a reality, and it’s also about the country in-between the two coasts: some of The Iron Horse‘s most memorable shots involve huge cattle drives and buffalo stampedes across endless plains as well as trains steaming across the flat land towards grand, looming mountain ranges, all handsomely shot by George Schneiderman. The shoot took only ten weeks – which is incredible given the scope of the film – with Ford’s brother Eddie working as assistant director. According to the writer David Thompson Eddie was pushed to breaking point, ‘looking after 5,000 extras, 2,000 horses and 1,300 buffalo—and keeping them apart’, so it’s no suprise that stories later emerged that detailed regular fights between the two brothers throughout the production. Even by 1924 violence was inextricably linked to the railroad.
Directed by: John Ford.
Written by: Charles Kenyon, John Russell, Charles Darnton.
Starring: George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy, Cyril Chadwick, Will Walling, Francis Powers, Fred Kohler, Charles Edward Bull.
Cinematography: George Schneiderman.
Editing: Hettie Gray Baker.
Music: Ernö Rapée.
Running Time: 150 minutes.