0583 | The Iron Horse

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 buffaloand 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.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
150 minutes.
Year:
1924.

Comments 9

  1. Keith July 8, 2016

    Great read. I actually am familiar with this one and have never seen the entire thing. I do remember it being a bit of a weird but thoroughly intriguing concoction. I really need to see the entire thing.

    • Stu July 11, 2016

      Thanks Keith. Sorry about the delayed reply, have had a WordPress-free weekend. How much have you seen of this? I’d read beforehand that it was tough going and only of value for people who loved Ford or were interested in the construction of the railroad (though its value as a historical piece is a moot point, I think!). But the time flew by for me watching it, I have to say.

  2. Jordan Dodd July 9, 2016

    I’m with Khalid, great read mate. I haven’t seen a single Ford film, I didn’t know he made over 50 silents before making this! That is crazy. Where would be a good spot to start for good Ford films? This one? I don’t really know where to start!

    • Stu July 11, 2016

      Cheers! The only other Ford film I’ve seen is The Searchers, which is brilliant, so I can’t really help to be honest. I know that Stagecoach, The Informer, The Grapes Of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Battle Of Midway are well thought of, and a few of his later westerns too. I’d like to see more myself so if you have any recommendations in the future let me know! The Iron Horse is on YouTube and the quality isn’t bad.

      • Jordan Dodd July 12, 2016

        I saw The Grapes Of Wrath at the cinemas, they had a retro film festival. I can’t remember much though =/ I’m gonna go get me a copy of The Searchers, I’ve read so much about it

  3. Three Rows Back July 14, 2016

    As Orson Welles once said when asked about his three favourite directors, he replied “John Ford, John Ford and, John Ford”. Says it all really. The guy was a genius. I have yet to see the Iron Horse – hats off to you for giving it an airing mate.

    • Stu July 15, 2016

      And Welles knew a thing or two! Cheers mate – worth a look if you’re a fan. It’s fairly long for a silent movie but I was surprised by how quickly the time seemed to go by.

  4. Todd B July 20, 2016

    When I first saw this film’s title in my e-mail inbox, I got excited and thought, “How cool, he watched a baseball movie about Lou Gehrig!” Well no, not quite…but it still sounds like a neat film. I’ve seen plenty of John Ford sound pictures, but never any silents, so perhaps I’ll give YouTube a visit at some point and check it out.

    As for Ford recommendations, I really liked My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and of course The Searchers…but I think my absolute favorite would be The Quiet Man…simply outstanding.

    • Stu July 20, 2016

      Yup, I’m afraid this is train-related, as opposed to baseball-related! I actually found it to be quite fun even if – push comes to shove – I’m a talkie man, ultimately.
      Anyway – thanks for the recommendations. The Searchers I’ve seen but not the others, so I’ll try and dig out The Quiet Man soon as I’d like to delve further into Ford’s work.

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