1924 // USA // John Ford (Uncredited) // January 1, 2013 // DVD - Fox (2007)
[Note: This post contains spoilers. Part of a series on the silent films of John Ford.]
There is a sharp difference in scope between John Ford's 1920 debut at the Fox Film Company, the light-hearted buddy picture Just Pals, and his next surviving feature film, the sprawling 1924 historical epic The Iron Horse. A portion of this contrast may be an artifact of an incomplete twenty-first century vantage point. Remarkably, Ford directed at least fourteen other features in the four-year span between Just Pals and The Iron Horse, nine of them at Fox. However, given that those intervening films are either lost or fragmentary, it's difficult to say whetherThe Iron Horse represents Ford's first, dramatic foray into ambitious, D. W. Griffith-scale filmmaking, or merely the surviving endpoint of a transition from relatively small-bore features to lavish spectacles. The only contemporary expansion in production size under a single director that might compare is Peter Jackson's leap from 1996'sThe Frighteners to 2001'sThe Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Of course, in that five-year interregnum, Ford could have cranked out fifteen or twenty features.
Regardless, The Iron Horse is undeniably a grand film. The restored American cut encompasses 149 minutes, and the film stacks that running time with the sort of sweeping Hollywood extravagance not seen since Griffith's own Intolerance from 1916. The story presents a highly fictionalized retelling of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, as seen primarily through the eyes of Davy Brandon (George O'Brien), a wannabe-surveyor turned all-around frontier adventurer. Davy dreams dewily of a path that stretches across America from sea to shining sea, longing for it the way less rugged men might long for the love of a woman. There is a woman in The Iron Horse, of course, the fetching Miriam (Madge Bellamy), Davy's childhood sweetheart and daughter to prosperous railroad builder Thomas Marsh (Will Walling). Nonetheless, the film’s central romance is not between Davy and Miriam, but between the United States and the locomotive, that steam-powered vessel of the nation's economic might.
Hovering over the film is the sanctifying presence of Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull), who did in fact have a slender real-world connection to the Railroad's early development in his post-Congressional years as a prairie lawyer. However, this historical footnote is not sufficient for The Iron Horse, which casts Lincoln as the the visionary creator of the Railroad, and rather glibly writes him into its first scene, set in Springfield, Illinois at an unspecified mid-nineteenth century time. (The film’s treatment of history is so muddled that making sense of the timeline is probably a hopeless endeavor.) A young(ish) Mr. Lincoln eavesdrops approvingly as surveyor David Brandon, Sr. (James Gordon) enthuses about his dream of a coast-to-coast railroad. Son Davy (Winston Miller) has absorbed this rather civic-minded ambition, and not even the charms of local girl Miriam (Peggy Cartwright) can dissuade him from heading West with his father. Unfortunately, the older Brandon is eventually captured by Cheyenne warriors on the frontier, and as a concealed Davy watches in terror, his father is hacked apart by a sneering, axe-wielding brave with pale skin and two fingers on his right hand.
The film then jumps forward to 1862—unlike in the Springfield-based prologue, the year is pointedly mentioned—as now-President Lincoln puts his signature to the Pacific Railroad Act. The grown-up Miriam is preparing to follow the westward progress of the Union Pacific with her father and her new fiance Jesson (Cyril Chadwick), a starchy and sniveling engineer. At this point, the film’s canvas broadens considerably, following the progress of the railroad’s westward march and lingering over the struggles and antics of a broad cast of characters. These include: cigar-chomping saloon proprietor Judge Haller (James Marcus), who holds ad hoc trials in his canvas-walled establishment; spitfire dance hall girl Ruby (Gladys Hulette); Irish railroad laborers and Union Army veterans Casey (J. Farrell MacDonald), Slattery (Francis Powers), and Mackay (James Welch); and wealthy, shifty-eyed landowner Deroux (Fred Kholer), who holds the lion’s share of the Smoky River tract along the planned Union Pacific route near North Platte, Nebraska Territory. In case it wasn’t obvious that Deroux was the primary antagonist, Kholer squints and sneers beneath so much oily makeup he practically oozes off the screen.
The villainous Deroux swiftly enlists the newly-arrived engineer Jesson into his schemes, which entail quashing Thomas Marsh’s attempts to find a mountain pass that bypasses Smoky River. (Mountains in Nebraska?) Fortunately for the future of the Transcontinental Railroad, it’s roughly at this point that Davy reenters the picture, having been raised by mountain men on the frontier after his father’s gruesome demise. Now a strapping Pony Express rider, he fortuitously appears to valiantly fend off an attack by marauding Cheyenne, promptly fanning the dormant flames of Miriam’s passion. Davy is smitten as well, but his heart ultimately belongs to the railroad; he views the completion of the Transcontinental route as a debt he owes his murdered father. This longing is matched in intensity only by his smoldering loathing for the mysterious, two-fingered white Indian, who naturally surfaces to provoke the local Cheyenne chief (John Big Tree) into escalating his assaults on the Union Pacific.
Ford handles all of this with admirable deftness. Despite The Iron Horse’s lengthy running time, the feature is a terrifically entertaining work of epic filmmaking, packed with rousing action, tense thrills, affecting melodrama, and droll comedic set pieces. Everything moves at a good clip, and although there are numerous subplots, the film pulls nearly all of them all together into a remarkably clean story over the course of its two and half hours. Even the cattle drive that ambles along almost entirely in the narrative’s background becomes a vital plot point in the final act. (Although Ford checks in on the drive so infrequently and so briefly, the reaction it provokes is mainly, “Oh, right, that’s happening.”) The only components of the film that feel somewhat unnecessary are the bits of comic thumb-twiddling, such as Ruby’s legal tap-dance when she is accused of shooting at a lout in Haller’s saloon, or an almost vaudevillian sequence in which a reluctant Casey visits the dentist for a toothache. However, while these comic scenes often feel extraneous to The Iron Horse’s main ambition to tell a ravishing story of the taming of the Old West, they are still charming and memorable, and serve to alleviate the achingly earnest devotion that the film displays towards the Almighty Railroad.
In some respects, Ford’s film function as an American cousin to Battleship Potemkin: a work of Silent Era propaganda that trumpets its ideological message with unabashed enthusiasm, while also serving as an breathtaking showcase for contemporary filmmaking at its grandest. (Potemkin, of course, also has the distinction of being thoroughly revolutionary experiment in cinematic grammar; Ford’s film is excellent, but comparatively paltry in its artistic ambitions.) To contemporary eyes, The Iron Horse’s triumphalist Manifest Destiny worldview is deeply problematic, but only rarely discomfiting to the point of distraction. Less easily set aside is the film’s almost fetishistic regard for the locomotive, which is so over-the-top that its straddles the line between poignant and silly. No scene embodies this wobbly quality more perfectly than a moment late in the film when Davy privately savors the railroad’s completion at Promontory Point, Utah Territory. It’s a great sequence: touchingly intimate in a film that is otherwise grandiose and sprawling, and strangely willing to acknowledge of the phoniness of the upcoming “official” Golden Spike ceremony. Undeniably, it is one of George O'Brien’s best scenes in the whole feature, but when he sits down on the tracks to stroke the steel rails almost sexually it invites a tear and a titter in equal measure.
As one might expect from a Western made in 1920s, the film also features a thick slathering of racism, and not only with respect to Native Americans. The spokesman for the railroad’s Italian workers is Tony (Colin Chase), a mustachioed caricature whose dialog titles are dense with stereotypical accented English. The film depicts this fellow and his countrymen as eager to drop their picks and shovels at the slightest provocation—for example, after not being paid their promised wages for weeks (the layabouts!). Of course, they eagerly return to work after a stirring oratory from Miriam, because as hot-blooded Latins, they are easily persuaded by the charms of a lovely woman. The Irish get off comparatively lightly, for while Casey and his compatriots serve as comic relief, they are also depicted as courageous Indian-fighters, enthusiastically embraced by Davy as “real Americans”. (Ford was himself a second-generation Irish-American.)
The Chinese workers who pushed the Central Pacific line eastward to meet the Union Pacific are given short shrift, and there are no black characters to speak of at all in the film. (Despite the grimness with which the film regards the Civil War, there is no mention of slavery, and much is made of the unifying power of the Transcontinental dream for Union and Confederate veterans.) The Cheyenne who attack the railroad are generally shown to be cunning, murderous devils, apparently resistant to technological progress out of savage spite. Of course, the film makes a point of directing the viewer’s attention to the Pawnee who defend the Union Pacific against the Cheyenne. Meanwhile, the main Indian villain, “Two-Fingers,” is not actually an Native American at all, but a white man who playacts as one in order to pursue his malevolent ambitions. However, these concessions to a 1920s version of racial nuance are in some ways just as pernicious as the broadest scalp-hunting, war-whooping stereotype. The film’s view seems to be that Native Americans will naturally acknowledge the virtues of the railroad and eagerly genuflect to its might, unless they are led astray by a villainous white, in which case an entire tribe can be prodded into a frenzy with little effort.
None of these race-based criticisms is presented to suggest that The Iron Horse is an Evil FIlm, or that its sins as a history-distorting Manifest Destiny mash note overwhelm its virtues as engaging cinema. (If one is prepared to disregard every John Ford feature that offers an ugly depiction of Native Americans, one would have to skip over several essential touchstones in the director’s filmography.) Indeed, the film serves to illustrate just how little has changed in pop cinema in nearly a century. The Iron Horse underlines that the viewer has permission to feel conflicted when a film is superbly entertaining, yet deeply entangled with troubling political or cultural attitudes.