The Iron Horse (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by James L. Neibaur

The Iron Horse  is John Ford's epic about creating a transcontinental railroad

The Iron Horse is John Ford's epic about creating a transcontinental railroad

Produced and directed by John Ford; cinematography by George Schneiderman; written by Charles Kenyon and John Russell; starring George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy, Charles Edward Bull, Francis Powers, J. Farrell MacDonald, and James Welch. Two DVD set, B&W. A Masters of Cinema Series release from Eureka Video.

Eureka Video in England has released The Iron Horse (1924)John Ford’s extension of B-Western ideas into an epic A-Western format, on a two-disc DVD set. The discs offer both the 133-minute European cut and the longer, fuller 150-minute American version. It is the first time the longer version has been available on Europe's Region 2 format (in America, the complete version can be found on the Ford at Fox collection). Along with both versions of the film, the set features a host of interesting special features.

While it is generally considered the film that catapulted John Ford to the front ranks of American filmmakers, The Iron Horse was made after the director had already helmed nearly fifty B-movies and short subjects. During this apprenticeship, Ford not only honed his understanding of the filmmaking process, he was also able to prepare himself for expanding his vision in presenting history through the cinema.

Westerns are central to the development of the motion picture. One of the first narrative films is Edwin S. Porter's iconic The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is a good example of using cross-cut editing to generate viewer excitement, as well as featuring a host of Western movie clichés that were already being parodied as early as Fatty Arbuckle's Out West (1918). It was the tremendous success of James Cruze's epic feature The Covered Wagon (1923), however, that inspired Fox studios to mount a Western film on a grander scale and with a larger budget. Studio head William Fox, impressed with what John Ford had been able to do with the Western genre on a limited budget, gave the director the assignment to direct The Iron Horse. With a keen interest in history and rather definite ideas, Ford saw it as an opportunity to create a Hollywood film based on his own perspective.

It is unfortunate that Ford's early work at Universal Studios (1917-1921) has been given such scant attention in most studies, but the sad fact is that few of the films have survived. Ford's film debut, The Tornado (1917), as well as many of his earliest Westerns, are considered to be lost. Based on current records, the first complete film directed by Ford for which a print still exists is Straight Shooting (1917). The film features actor Harry Carey, who starred in most of Ford's early Westerns, as the good guy, and Duke Lee as the bad guy, but that is where traditional Western cinema ends. Both characters exhibit the qualities of rugged individualism that would become a standard in Ford's later, more notable films. And while this early film was shot on a studio lot, years before Ford would use the expanse of Monument Valley as a backdrop, the director still uses close-ups sparingly, and prefers to keep his camera far enough away to more effectively frame his actors in their surroundings.

Most of the films Ford shot during his tenure at Universal were Westerns and rural dramas, nearly always starring Carey, and sometimes featuring such silent Western film notables as Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and Buck Jones. Ford's interest in history is borne out significantly in the later films, with which audiences are more familiar, and was likely honed during this elusive early part of his career.

The Iron Horse deals with the creation of the continental railroad, from the initial dream to the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit. Within this context, Ford includes the significance of such historical characters as Abraham Lincoln and Buffalo Bill Cody, as well as the Civil War and cattle drives that were shaping America as the building of the railroad took place. Since this was the first time Ford worked with a large budget, he could afford to indulge in his penchant for historical accuracy. According to Tag Gallagher in his book John Ford: the Man and His Films (University of California Press, 1986):

The film contained 5000 extras; construction of two whole towns; 100 cooks to feed the crew; 2000 rail layers; a cavalry regiment; 800 Indians; 1300 buffalo; 2000 horses; 10,000 cattle; 50,000 properties; 116 locomotives that had met the Promontory Point May 10, 1869; Wild Bill Hickock's derringer; and the original stagecoach used by Horace Greeley.

George O'Brien stars as Davy Brandon, first shown as a boy whose father has the idea of uniting the country by railroad. His father is killed, however, and the boy strives to make that vision a reality: dedicating his life to pursuing, and accomplishing, his father's dream. This perfectly illustrates Ford's perspective in presenting history as drama. He portrays this significant event as stemming from a single visionary who did not live to see it accomplished, and the inspired son who strove to make the idea a reality. In many of Ford's more notable films, he will idealize the setting in order to concentrate on the individual accomplishment. The romantic subplot featuring O'Brien and Madge Bellamy, as childhood sweethearts reunited as adults, is not quite as interesting as Ford's rendering of the historic events. The romance can be a bit mundane and plodding, and the footage it takes up is often merely a distraction, perhaps an indication of the director being less at ease with such sequences.

With our limited understanding of his earlier films, it is still evident that Ford had already learned to balance humor, pathos, action, and scenes of central character introspection. All of these are featured in The Iron Horse. Davy’s ruggedness is offset by the comical turns of three soldiers portrayed by Francis Powers, J. Farrell MacDonald, and James Welch. The stark shots of the cattle drive and the majestic locomotive are contrasted by the exuberant singing of the Italian and Irish immigrants building the railroad.

What especially sustains the film through its formidable running time is Ford's method of filmmaking. Ford’s use of an expressionist approach—shooting in long and medium shots to present the negative space surrounding the action at the center of the frame—is augmented by the use of movement within that frame. Ford will cross-cut between crowds of hurried, bustling people to vast long shots of cattle drives and moving trains that display a discernible majestic strength. As writer Ephram Katz stated in The Film Encyclopedia, “The movement of men and horses in [Ford's] westerns has rarely been surpassed for regal serenity and evocative power.”

The director's presentation in The Iron Horse is at once the culmination of experiments and ideas investigated in his previous films, and the harbinger for his later classics.

The Iron Horse is also a quintessential compendium of John Ford's various interests, from its celebration of American individualism to its attempt at historical accuracy within the parameters of a Hollywood story. Davy's father, who imagines the railroad, is killed within the film's first fifteen minutes by a white man who is leading a tribe of Indians. Forced to bury his father, the boy seeks not vengeance, but the pursuit of his father's dream. This dream is realized only through the hardships of toiling by hand during the rigors of a cold winter. Ford carefully presents the primitive methods used to haul supplies, including teams of horses pulling locomotives over mountains.

Ford's use of movement on the margins of the frame is often offset by stillness in the center of the shot. Scenes that take place in a saloon, for instance, will invariably feature the central characters in the foreground, with the softer images of dancing patrons in the background. The movement of the dancers offsets the stoic characters in the foreground.

More examples of the director's using different ways to present similar sequences can be found when comparing the film's two fight scenes. The first fight takes place in a saloon, but shows little of the two combatants (one of which is Davy), concentrating instead on the crowd's reaction, with a few cutaways to the immediate action (sometimes shown as shadows on the tent wall—reflecting in that manner because the onlookers are holding lanterns aloft to get a better view). This scene is something of a setup to the later fight (again featuring O'Brien, albeit with another opponent—the man who had killed his father) that closely spotlights the fighters themselves, with no onlookers present. Ford wisely chooses to not emphasize the same elements in the earlier fight as in the later one, so as not to dilute the excitement of the second battle. Ford realized the second fight was more important, as it offers the central character closure from the life-altering event that opens the movie.

The Indian attack in The Iron Horse, with its carefully placed tracking shots that present the galloping horses in the lower part of the frame so more of the background is visible, is something of a blueprint for similar sequences in later Ford films like Stagecoach (1939) and Fort Apache (1948). Ford's presentations of Indian uprisings were always especially brutal. Women and children were not spared, as they often would be in other Hollywood films. The Iron Horse is no exception. O'Brien's heroic jump onto the moving train could be considered a portent for John Wayne's much more daring leap from a wagon onto a team of horses in Stagecoach (via stuntman Yakima Canutt).

Despite the action of these scenes, perhaps the most exhilarating sequence is the scene of Davy's ecstasy upon seeing his father's vision completed, as this triumph is not his alone. The most moving shot might be of Davy standing alone on the railroad tracks looking down in a pensive, introspective manner. Ford characteristically shoots this from enough of a distance, surrounding the stillness of O'Brien with the vastness of the land and the mountains. Standing center frame, looking down at the freshly laid railroad tracks, framed by the America his work is helping to improve, he then sits and pensively rubs his hands on the rail, feeling his father's presence. Ford frequently used such posed shots in his films, including many of his earlier Harry Carey Westerns (John Wayne's pose in the doorway at the conclusion of The Searchers was said to be an homage to the recently deceased Carey).

One tangential element of The Iron Horse that is worth noting is Ford's presentation of Abraham Lincoln. While giving the vision for a railroad to another character, and having his lead actor play the role of the figure who helped foster its development, Lincoln is shown as the necessary support vital to bringing the idea to its fruition. Ford appears to see Lincoln as the quintessential American hero. In The Iron Horse, Lincoln's heroism stems from his unwavering belief in the railroad's possibility. When told by naysayers that the expense on "this folly” would take needed funds away from the current Civil War, Lincoln insists that the war "should not blind us for the peace to come," insisting that work on the railroad continue. Ford would visit Lincoln's story again, most notably with The Prisoner of Shark Island (1933), which looks at the doctor who treated a wounded John Wilkes Booth shortly after the assassination; and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which examines the President's early life as a lawyer crusading for justice.

Filming of The Iron Horse was, by all accounts, a rough experience, with shooting commencing in a remote location in the Sierra Nevada, from December 1923 through March 1924, amidst blizzard conditions that regularly thwarted production. Ford allegedly worked from a script that had only the mere basics of narrative, creating scenes while filming. Production heads wanted to see some examples of footage already shot, but Ford refused to send it to them. William Fox, however, believed in the director, and let him continue without interruption.

At a cost of less than $400,000, The Iron Horse went on to gross $1.5 million: an impressive sum for 1924. Despite its budget, success with audiences, and epic status, much of the film's beauty is due to the fact that Ford retains his B-movie perspective. Correlating the uniting of the country by railroad with the uniting of human relationships across ethnic lines in the building of that railroad, Ford limits the broad melodramatics that were standard in so many period silent dramas, and uses more action and movement to propel the narrative. With its beautiful scenery, characters that exhibit the stereotypical male strength and female beauty, and a story that comes directly from American history, it can be easily understood how such a method would make this film a popular, epic entertainment at the time of its initial release.

Eureka Video's choice to provide both the more recently discovered American version and the long-available European version of The Iron Horse is interesting in that it allows us to compare and contrast the two edits, and the shots each chooses to use. The American version is preferable, being closer to Ford's own vision (albeit some cutaways to close-ups of Madge Bellamy were added in postproduction to both versions, much to the director's chagrin).

The special feature extras contained on these discs include a twenty-minute video essay narrated by Tag Gallagher, perhaps the foremost authority on John Ford's work. Clips from Ford's few surviving earlier films, as well as later classics like Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), allow us to see the effort that led up to The Iron Horse, and its eventual influence on the filmmaker's later work. The aforementioned commentary by Robert Birchard on the European cut is helpful for those who might like to flesh out their knowledge and understanding of the production (the fact that Birchard was fortunate to have met many those who worked on The Iron Horse, including Ford himself, makes his comments all the more enlightening).

John Ford's long career, from the early silent era into the colorful and wide-screen 1960s, includes some of cinema's most important feature films. With so little of the silent era surviving in the twenty-first century, we are fortunate that a landmark film like The Iron Horse is available in both its American and European versions, allowing us a deeper understanding of cinema's rich history, as well as its presentation of actual historical events and the development of the Western genre in film.

James L. Neibaur is a film historian and educator whose latest book is Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios (Scarecrow Press). He is currently writing a book on the films of Harry Langdon.

To purchase The Iron Horse, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1