Directed by John Ford
Written by Charles Kenyon & John Russell
If The Great Train Robbery started the genre and The Covered Wagon checked most of the boxes for representing the genre, then The Iron Horse goes above and beyond the previous two films to solidify the genre and showcase a remarkable filmmaker and his ability to transform the medium and Western genre and catapult both to an upward trajectory. Those words may be slight hyperbole, but there is truth in what a tremendous accomplishment The Iron Horse is as a film. The filmmaker in question is of course John Ford, whose films are as celebrated as any, within the Western genre and generally. Ford forged an extremely productive career (146 directing credits per IMDb), and one with many notable films, many of which will grace this very marathon. If you’ve read my review of The Covered Wagon, or seen the film yourself, I would say The Iron Horse is everything The Covered Wagon is, but done in a more polished, epic, and capable manner.
The plot is of course different, but the concept is still similar. Instead of a wagon train west, the driving force here is the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Davy Brandon (George O’Brien), whose father was a surveyor who was killed by a two fingered Native American, finds a calling when he runs into his childhood sweetheart Miriam (Madge Bellamy) out west. Madge is engaged to be married to Jesson (Cyril Chadwick), the chief engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad. When Jesson is looking for a shortcut through the Black Hills, Davy attempts to help, but is thwarted by the land magnate Deroux, who has reason to want the railway to run through his lands. A dangerous love triangle and rivalry develops to threaten Davy and Miriam’s relationship, and the completion of the country’s greatest feat.
Anyone familiar with John Ford as a director will not be surprised by his sensibilities of sentimental patriotism on display early on, and in fact throughout, here. Ford is clearly celebrating the tremendous accomplishment of the Transcontinental Railroad. In some ways, I though of Frank Capra as a comparison. Though clearly different, both celebrate the sentimentality of the American Dream, just in different ways. Ford is certainly more rugged than sappy, though his patriotism is blatantly obvious at times during this film. Ford’s general cinematic sensibilities are also on display here, differentiating The Iron Horse from The Covered Wagon by being significantly more cinematic in its cinematography, acting style and general approach to telling an epic story. The use of multiple camera angles, although still somewhat primitive, and extremely effective close ups, shows viewers what the film medium is capable of producing. Ford also shows us a very early cinematic implementation of the flashback technique, albeit a brief one. These are the little details which set a John Ford film apart from many others in the same vein and make The Iron Horse a film ahead of its time.
Due to the expansive outlook of the film, there are sequences which become somewhat nondescript when compared to the much more personal moments of narrative. The vast summary and pseudo-documentary style of some of the sequences works to a point, but it does feel as though the film is ballooned slightly by these scenes to make up the 150 minute run time. The climactic scenes, however, mostly redeem these intermittent segues and tangents by being a raucous and exciting gun fight, something missing from The Covered Wagon. It is also possible that the added context from the more nondescript elements of the film may add significance to the story for those more unfamiliar with the time, effort, and history of “Hell on Wheels” and the Transcontinental Railroad, which in and of itself is a fascinating phenomenon.
I was surprised to see in this film, so early on in the marathon, a progressive depiction of women on screen. They are not only shown to be capable and independent, with Ruby defending herself by brandishing a pistol in the saloon, but they are also shown to take up arms in defense of the railroad right alongside the men. Additionally, the Native American’s are for the most part portrayed as they were in The Covered Wagon. Ford certainly focuses on the effort of the railway workers in defending their work westward, but the Native American’s don’t seem unprovoked or unreasonable in their attacks, especially as they are mostly instigated by the actions of Deroux. I think in many cases throughout this marathon, the question of Native American portrayal will come down to perspective. In this case, it is a matter of John Ford’s perspective.
Overall, the acting of the film feels very natural as well, especially when compared to The Covered Wagon, which still feels somewhat like stage performance, as other silent performances often do. George O’Brien in particular is a handsome, charismatic star, though his screen time feels somewhat limited, even as the main character of the story. In this regard, almost like The Covered Wagon before it, the building of the railroad becomes more prominent than any character or relationship built around it. The Deroux and Brandon rivalry in particular is the most interesting, though both it and Brandon’s rivalry with Jesson could have been developed a little more for fuller effect. In the end, the film is a massive success and seems to one up The Covered Wagon at every turn, feeling bigger and better. It is not a perfect film, and not among Ford’s best. But for fans of the filmmaker, or the genre, who have not seen this film, I think there is plenty to unpack in The Iron Horse.