Tuesday, January 24, 2012

John Ford, The Iron Horse (1924)

Followers of TV’s Hell on Wheels will be interested in this silent epic about the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The grandness of the movie’s scale is equal to that of its subject. John Ford weaves together several plots, deftly manages a large cast of characters, and constantly fills the eye with grand, sweeping photography.

It’s also a history lesson that celebrates American know-how, vision, and democracy. The railroad is an achievement of common men and women working together to overcome obstacles of all kinds in the building of a great nation. The making of the railroad across hostile and forbidding terrain, connecting East and West, becomes a symbol of Manifest Destiny.

Enough breathlessness, which the movie aims for and surely earns. It’s also darned entertaining. 

Plot. Beginning in Springfield, Illinois, the film introduces us in wintry scenes to a boy, Davy, whose father sets out West with a dream of a cross-country railroad. The man has already discovered a mountain pass that, he says, will some day be a passage for trains. The boy then witnesses the death of his father at the hand of a half-breed Cheyenne with two fingers on one hand.

Years later, the two-fingered half-breed, going by the name of Deroux, shows up again, wearing a fur coat and with one hand shoved into his pocket. A land speculator, he tries to get the railroad built through a valley where he owns property. 

Joining the tracks, Promontory, Utah, 1869
The boy Davy now re-enters the story, a handsome young pony express rider (George O’Brien), and discovers that the sweetheart of his youth, Marian (Madge Bellamy), is engaged to the head engineer Jesson. When Davy tells of his father’s pass through the mountains, which would save 200 miles of track-laying, Deroux and Jesson attempt to have the young man killed.

That scheme fails, and after a big fight with Jesson, Davy is made gang boss. With Jesson out of the picture, Deroux returns to the Cheyenne to incite them to attack the railway crew. In a battle that involves most of the population of the nearest town, Davy finds and kills Deroux.

Before long, the two sections of the railroad meet in Promontory, Utah, where the golden spike is driven that completes the project. Davy is on hand for the ceremony and so is his childhood sweetheart. No longer engaged to Jesson, she is free to be Davy’s wife.

More. That’s the thread running through this 2.5-hour movie. Along the way we are treated to numerous subplots and incidents that range in tone from farce to melodrama. Hell on Wheels itself appears as the name of a saloon, presided over by a Roy Bean-style judge. A suspenseful scene occurs there as several thugs gather to do away with Davy. When their efforts fail, Davy and Jesson slug it out until Marian arrives and makes them stop.

Union Pacific poster
Several historical characters appear at points in the story, Abraham Lincoln, Buffalo Bill, and Wild Bill Hickock. Presidents of the two railroads, Leland Stanford and Thomas Durant, are on hand for the ceremony at Promontory. So are the actual locomotives that were there, Jupiter and Engine #116.

Ford works in a cattle drive from Texas, with bearded cowboys and cattle with actual long horns. He includes a tribe of friendly Pawnee who are hired by the railroad company for protection from the hostiles. He also makes an effort to include the Chinese laborers who helped build the Central Pacific eastward from Sacramento.

The cinematography is often remarkable, especially shots of bands of Indians on horseback racing over the landscape. Large crowd scenes are orchestrated with dramatic movement and depth, such as when the town of North Platte is taken down and moved by train to Cheyenne, where it is quickly reassembled.

There is some nifty stunt work as Davy, chased by Indians, tumbles from a falling horse and then leaps onto a passing train. His fall while rappelling down a cliff, after Jesson cuts his rope, is a seamless mix of actual footage and matte work.

Madge Bellamy, 1928
Fordisms. For comic relief and a lesson in melting-pot nationalism, Ford brings together three former soldiers of different backgrounds: Sgt. Slattery, Corp. Case, and Pvt. Schultz. They are bonded together as war veterans against the “furriner” Italians, who are often at the point of going on strike when payday or the beef from Texas is late in arriving.

There is a long farcical sequence as two of them help a barber-dentist extract a tooth from the third. Later, when Slattery is killed in the Indian attack, tears are shed, and eventually the “Eyetalians” are welcomed into the fold of American workingmen.

The town’s dancehall girls join in the rescue of the railway crews who are under siege by the Cheyenne in the film’s last big battle scene. One of them, Ruby, is a kind of Belle Starr, who shoots a customer in the dance tent when he insults her. Though she’s done some dirty work for Deroux, she redeems herself by shifting her alliances to the good guys. Predictably, she gets shot by Deroux for her efforts.

There are sudden, surprising shifts in mood. As the train pulls out of North Platte, loaded with celebrating folks on the move to Cheyenne, a woman is left behind, weeping beside an open grave. When an Indian falls dead from a horse in the midst of a gun battle, a small dog runs to him to nuzzle his face and then crawl next to him.

Trailer, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
George O’Brien. The starring role given to George O’Brien was his first. The son of a San Francisco cop who became chief of police, he’d done little more than stunt work and playing bit parts in movies. An athlete and boxer, he had all-American good looks and a studly physique. In a “Matthew McConaughey scene” he gets his shirt ripped off and accounts for the nickname he apparently acquired—The Chest.

Unlike John Wayne in his first big film, The Big Trail (1930), O’Brien seems a natural in front of the camera. Of course, he didn’t have to speak lines, but his face registers believable emotions, and his physical presence is relaxed and persuasive. His acting career flourished in the 1920s, then waned in the 1930s, though he became one of the better-known cowboy stars in B-westerns. In later years, Ford cast him as cavalry officers in Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

Wrapping up. The film was shot in southern California and northern Nevada, which accounts for the mountains that appear in most of the exterior scenes. Ford was all of 30 years old when he directed this film. It’s a remarkable achievement. Charles Kenyon wrote the scenario. Among his 100-plus film writing credits were adaptations of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and The Petrified Forest (1936).

The Iron Horse is currently available at netflix and amazon. Tuesday’s Overlooked Films is the much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Source: imdb.com

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: William Lacey Amy, The Blue Wolf (1913)


  1. THE IRON HORSE is an excellent film especially for the silent era. I guess we can call it a more optimistic and innocent version of the railroad expansion. HELL ON WHEELS is also excellent and shows the violence, corruption, and greed involved in the business.

    UNION PACIFIC(1939) is another fine film despite actually copying some of the scenes from THE IRON HORSE.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Walker. I just put UNION PACIFIC in the queue at netflix.

  2. a 2.5 hour silent movie? Wow, I don't think I would be able to sit still that long.

    1. Charles, it's not all that silent. The netflix copy has a new music track which is quite good.

  3. My mother told me that my great-grandfather was at Promontory Point for the big celebration and is in that famous photograph taken of the scene, but couldn't identify him. Everybody had beards then, just about. I saw this movie as a young'un, but since there was no talking, I thought it was boring as all get-out and that's what I did.

    1. Yeah, it's really a movie for adults. As for that photo, Ford made an attempt to recreate it, so far as I could tell.

  4. My knowledge of towns springing up around the railroad in America has come through a spattering of books and movies I have read and seen over the years. The history of US railroad makes for a fascinating read. Thanks for a very fine review of THE IRON HORSE. I hope I get to see it sometime soon.

    1. Prashant, the interstate highway system keeps certain communities alive across thinly populated parts of the West and Midwest today for similar reasons.

  5. This film is truly great! Loved it then, and the same now. Some friends and I had a beer and pizza night watching B&W movies. This was one!