Friday, July 1, 2022

#2,777. The Iron Horse (1924) - The Films of John Ford


A silent epic directed by John Ford, 1924’s The Iron Horse chronicles the birth of the American Transcontinental Railroad, and does so in a way that makes its 150-minute runtime seem to fly by.

George O’Brien stars as Davy Brandon, who, years after witnessing the murder of his father, agrees to help his old neighbor, engineer Thomas Marsh (Will Walling), save some money by finding a shortcut for the railroad through the Black Hills.

Though still in love with Marsh’s daughter Miriam (Madge Bellamy), who was his childhood sweetheart, Davy discovers that she is now engaged to Peter Jessen (Cyril Chadwick), an employee of her father’s. What none of them realize, however, is that Jessen is in league with Deroux (Fred Kohler), who, though pretending to assist Marsh, wants nothing more than to see the railroad fail.

Delayed time and again by Deroux’s treachery, dissatisfied workers, and raids by the Cheyenne, Marsh and his team, which includes former Union soldiers Slattery (Francis Powers), Casey (J. Farrell MacDonald) and Schultz (James Welch), remain undaunted, and are determined to see the job through to the end.

The first major production of John Ford’s career, The Iron Horse is a grand motion picture that features all the drama, all the excitement, and plenty of the humor that would become staples of the great director’s later works. There are sweeping panoramas of the western frontier, and plenty of big, sprawling scenes, including cattle drives, buffalo hunts, and a number of battles between railroad workers and the Cheyenne.

Ford even gets a few opportunities to show off his artistic eye; I was especially impressed by a scene in which the shadows of Cheyenne warriors, riding up the crest of a hill, are cast against the side of a locomotive car. As for the laughs, most come courtesy of Slattery, Casey and Schultz, who have known each other since the war and get into all sorts of mischief, but I also enjoyed the sequences in which bartender / “judge” Haller (James A. Marcus), who, though clearly not qualified (a sign outside his saloon mentions the fact his papers from the Governor were stolen, but he’s going to practice law anyway), dispenses immediate justice (with a gavel and all) whenever there’s a fight in his establishment.

Along with the main cast, a few historical figures pop up throughout The Iron Horse, including Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull), both before and after he became President, as well as Buffalo Bill Cody (George Waggner) and Wild Bill Hickok (Jack Padjan).

Not everything about The Iron Horse works. In one particularly Schmaltzy scene, Miriam puts down a workers’ revolt simply by asking them to “do their country proud”, and like many movies from this time period, the treatment of non-whites is less than sympathetic. The Cheyenne are depicted as the villains, and, worse still, the puppets of Deroux, while the Chinese workers, many of whom gave their lives to complete the railroad, get a brief mention at the beginning of the movie and only appear in a scene or two after that, usually in the background. But getting a chance to see an early film by John Ford, and a western to boot, makes The Iron Horse a movie that’s definitely worth seeking out.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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