Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon & John Russell
Starring: George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy, Fred Kohler, Cyril Chadwick
Producer: William Fox
Running Time: 150 & 133 min
BBFC Certification: PG
The Iron Horse was John Ford’s breakthrough film. At the tender age of 29 Ford had already directed around 50 films (most of which were shorts), but it was his involvement in this, one of the earliest blockbusters, that gave his name clout in Hollywood and set him on his way to becoming one of, if not the most famous and celebrated of American directors. I must admit, despite the pedigree I was a little hesitant to sit down and watch The Iron Horse. As open-minded as I am in my film-viewing, a two and a half hour silent film about building a railway sounded a bit dull. I was expecting to appreciate watching some big epic visuals but grow tired of a dated, slow narrative. In actual fact what I got was pretty much the opposite.
The film charts the construction of America’s first transcontinental railway from a mere dream to Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the bill to start work, all the way to the last nail being hammered in as the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines meet in the middle. Of course, simply watching the rails getting laid wouldn’t make much of a movie though, so the massive achievement is used to frame a classic love story. Davy Brandon’s father dreams of the day East and West were linked and takes his son West to fulfil this, leaving behind the boy’s best friend Miriam Marsh. On the way Brandon senior is killed by a group of Cheyenne, led by a two-fingered white man, but Davy escapes. We jump forward several years to the start of work on the tracks where we follow a now grown up Miriam (Madge Bellamy) who lives with her father and fiancé, working on the Union Pacific line. Deroux (Fred Kohler), a nasty piece of work, wants to persuade Miriam’s father to take a longer route through land that he owns, which seems to be the case until Davy (George O’Brien) shows up out of the blue. Through his travels with his father he found a shortcut through the mountains. This of course causes problems for Deroux and Jesson (Cyril Chadwick), his right hand man and fiancé to Miriam. These two therefore plot out numerous ways put a stop to the righteous Davy.
As I hinted in my opening paragraph, this turned out quite different to how I expected. Billed as a grand epic involving thousands of extras and a number of genuine props and sets, I expected the film’s prime draw to be its scale and visuals. Granted a lot of work clearly went into getting the period detail right and it is a ‘big’ film, but it didn’t really have the awe-inspiring sweep that I was expecting. What it did have luckily was a strong sense of character and entertainment value. Ford clearly knows how to keep an audience glued to their seats for two and-a-half hours. The narrative itself is standard stuff, but it’s fleshed out with a healthy dose of humour, action and emotion to create a truly entertaining adventure. Granted, these elements are more than often unnecessarily shoe-horned into the film, serving little narrative purpose, but it does serve to give the characters a little more life as well as keep the experience fun. That said, I could have done without a couple of the ‘history lesson’ segments, which might be interesting at times, but really jar amongst the more ‘human’ threads. Noticeably, there are some odd cutaways to cowboys herding cattle towards the rail-workers which do come into play towards the end, but they feel quite superfluous before that point.
The film doesn’t feel ahead of its time in a visual sense when compared to some of the other silent greats, but its views on equality are surprising. Yes there is some racial stereotyping going on with the phonetic spelling on many of the cue-cards accentuating some thick accents and dialect, but the various nationalities working together on the track are shown to get along by the end and most contribute positively. The Native Americans get the short end of the stick of course, although even then the Americans have a group of friendly Pawnees that assist them. There is a distinct lack of African Americans in it too, but the civil rights movement was a long way off in 1924. Women are the most well portrayed here though, with Miriam proving to be a very strong-willed and active character for the time as well as the memorably feisty saloon-girl Ruby (Gladys Hulette).
The Iron Horse may not be John Ford’s greatest film, but it’s early proof of his strength as one of the greatest American myth-makers. It presents an important slice of American history as a triumph over adversity and a bonding of men (and women) in creating national unity through hard, honest labour. As a film it’s grand entertainment that has aged well. It could use a trim here and there and is brazenly patriotic (something us Brits can’t abide), but I wouldn’t expect otherwise from the era and as a whole it still stands up tall.
The film is released in the UK on DVD on 26th September as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. The picture quality is great for a film of its age and its soundtrack can be played in stereo or 5.1 surround sound. It’s presented as a 2-disc set with the original American and international cuts on separate discs. The American version is 150 minutes long and the international one is 133 minutes with alternative takes used throughout as was the practise in those days. I must admit I only watched the full US version, but I’ve heard this is the stronger of the two and was likely to be Ford’s chosen cut. There is an audio commentary on the international version which has its dry spells (the film is rather long) but also offers a number of anecdotes dug out about the making of the film and the background of the cast and crew. Also included is a 20-minute ‘video essay’ which is quite poorly made from a technical perspective, but is nevertheless interesting, setting up the background of the film and looking into Ford’s attention to detail in directing his actors.