The Iron Horse (1924) Director: John Ford
What a terrific early John Ford film! He was a mere 29 years old when he started work on The Iron Horse and he had already completed some fifty films. As a young man from Ireland, Ford was enamored with the stories of America –the West, progress, adventure, the Civil War, and immigrants. Coming from a family of poor Irish Catholics, he loved it all, and his films often explored nuance in the uniting of America, as they often portrayed the outcasts perspective using the Old West as his backdrop. Prompted by the success of The Covered Wagon the prior year, Fox decided to create their own epic Western. The result was The Iron Horse. Placed in the capable hands of John “Jack” Ford, the film captures many of the tropes that would become integral to classic westerns. The quality of this film has deteriorated somewhat with time, but what remains reveals an extraordinary trail of cinematography and a truly epic production.
I can almost see John Ford now –standing forth, unpretentious, seated atop his director’s chair, chewing cigars and hankies, shouting directions, fabricating the script as goes along. The Iron Horse was filmed during a frigid Nevada winter –people caught pneumonia, many contracted dysentery, and some died in the making of this movie. The production crew was so massive they effectively built a small city in the high desert for all the staff and extras. A bugler awoke them each morning and in the evenings they enjoyed dancing and music. Being on the set with John Ford was reportedly a grand old time, and Ford later claimed The Iron Horse was his favorite of all his films.
The film tells a glamorized version of the building of the transcontinental railroad during which we experience the clash of cultures: Italians, Irish, and Chinese laborers, as well as American Indians and so on. It is an optimistic film about the American dream, and it is dedicated to the greatest of American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln. However dreamers like these always run into hurdles –skeptics, obstacles, naysayers, and divisiveness. The goal of meeting the two railroad lines is portrayed as a noble endeavor, pursued with courage by Abraham Lincoln who, despite the ongoing Civil War, believes in the innate vision of a unified country from coast to coast –and the project is begun shortly after his assassination. It is this dream of the railroad that causes a great movement of peoples –different races, rich men and laborers alike, cattle herders, immigrants, soldiers, and engineers, all traversing across rugged terrain, facing hostile natives, risking their lives– to find a way to connect the railroad from Omaha to Sacramento. The film’s star, George O’Brien, became a good friend of John Ford and he appeared in several more Ford films though perhaps his most famous role was the lead in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. He was joined by fellow star off the silent screen, Madge Bellamy.
In a beautifully fitting conclusion, a title note informs us that the actual locomotives used in The Iron Horse were the original #119 and Jupiter which united East and West (though this is false as both were actually scrapped before 1910). Still, I was delighted to see the crowd gather as the final railway spikes were laid and Leland Stanford was greeted by Thomas C. Durant. What a triumphant close to this wonderful film! The Iron Horse was unsurprisingly the biggest hit of 1924 –Fox’s investment paid off handsomely.