#460) The Iron Horse (1924)
OR “A Rail of a Tale”
Directed by John Ford
Written by Charles Kenyon and John Russell
Class of 2011
The Plot: Set during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, “The Iron Horse” is an epic tale of unity in the wild west (well, Utah). While on the job, Union Pacific surveyor Davy Brandon (George O’Brien) reunites with childhood friend Miriam Marsh (Madge Bellamy). Although they still have feelings for each other, Miriam is engaged to civil engineer Peter Jesson (Cyril Chadwick). Davy is also trying to track down the “two-fingered Indian” who killed his father when he was a boy. Not-so-coincidentally, evil landowner Deroux (Fred Kohler) only has two fingers on his right hand, and occasionally poses as a Cheyenne warrior to agitate the local tribes and cause trouble with the townsfolk. It’s all the impressive filmmaking and harmful stereotypes you’ve come to expect from John Ford’s oeuvre, plus Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull)!
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “[a] classic silent film” with a “reverential, elegiac mythology that has influenced many subsequent Westerns.” There’s also an essay by silent film expert David Kiehn. Hey, he wrote the essay for my last post too! What are the odds?
But Does It Really?: By today’s standards, this film is bloated and brimming with cliches – both stereotypical and otherwise – but at its core “The Iron Horse” is a well-made drama whose effect can still be felt (albeit faintly) almost 100 years later. “The Iron Horse” is on this list for its historical significance as a hit movie of its day, and its cultural significance as one of John Ford’s earliest successes. A pass for “The Iron Horse”, but this is another one reserved for the film buffs.
Everybody Gets One: Leading lady Madge Bellamy was a star of the silent era, equally known for her on-screen talent as her off-screen temper (fan magazines called her “Miss Firecracker”). Her career declined in the late ’20s when she turned down roles in such films as “Ben-Hur” and “7th Heaven“. Bellamy last made headlines in the early 1940s when she was arrested for firing shots at an ex-lover.
Wow, That’s Dated: Goddamit John Ford, we talk about this every time! Yes, Native Americans were angry when the Transcontinental Railroad took over their land, but that is a far more nuanced situation than the anonymous savages of “The Iron Horse”. And on top of that, the film has a misguided message about the immigrants who helped build the railroad, all of them depicted as one-note racial and ethnic stereotypes.
- Like so many great movies, “The Iron Horse” was made to cash in on the success of another movie. Paramount’s 1923 western “The Covered Wagon” was a huge success, helping revive interest in the western genre. Fox Film wanted to get in on the action, but was only willing to give “The Iron Horse” half the budget of “Covered Wagon” ($280,000 vs. $500,000). John Ford was hired to direct because of his reputation for bringing his films in on-time and under budget (a streak he continued with “The Iron Horse”).
- The first takeaway from “The Iron Horse” is just how reverential it is to Abraham Lincoln and a major event from the 1860s. It’s like “The Birth of a Nation“, but racist in a different way. Keep in mind this film was made 60 years after the fact. Today it would be like doing a movie about the moon landing and praising JFK to the hilt.
- Along with Honest Abe, Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok also make appearances. In terms of brushes with history, this movie is less “Forrest Gump” and more “Titanic”.
- The bulk of “The Iron Horse” was shot on location just outside of Reno, Nevada. The entire town of North Platte was built for the movie, and local justice of the peace Charles Edward Bull was cast as Lincoln based on his uncanny resemblance. The shoot did, however, face some unexpected snowfall, which Ford was able to quickly incorporate into a few scenes before having his cast and crew of hundreds shovel it all up in a matter of hours to continue filming.
- And then the adult Davy shows up and this movie falls into its pattern: scenes of the railroad and its significance, followed by scenes of the Davy/Miriam love story, and then scenes of the comic relief railroad workers. It’s all fine, but I worry for Miriam’s well-being; Davy’s just gonna cheat on her with The Woman from the City. That joke was for you silent film buffs out there; you’re the real heroes!
- A couple of things: first of all, the “two-fingered Indian” is the forefather to such notable criminals as the One-Armed Man from “The Fugitive” and Count Rugen from “The Princess Bride“. Secondly, it’s so obviously Deroux. Like, this should have been wrapped up in the first act. Side note: When Deroux goes to the saloon I assume he only orders two ounces of whiskey. What’s the term for that?
- [Spoilers] My favorite unintentionally funny moment is Miriam’s response to Davy murdering her fiancée: “David, you promised.” Even in the 1860s, men failed to clear the exceptionally low standards set by the women who love them.
- The movie’s finale is quite epic, and a harbinger of the kind of mammoth finales Ford would later hone in such films as “Stagecoach“. Plus, this has got to be one of the rare Westerns where the female characters get to fight alongside their male counterparts with no questions asked.
- The final scene is, of course, the driving of the golden spike into the completed railway track. The intertitles go out of their way to mention that the Union Pacific’s No. 119 and the Central Pacific’s Jupiter used for the scene were the original engines. This is unquestionably false; the originals had been dismantled and scrapped some 15 years before this film’s production. Nice try, though.
- Some John Ford western this is: Where’s Monument Valley?
- “The Iron Horse” was the highest grossing film of 1924, and helped propel the career of John Ford. Over the next 40 years, Ford directed dozens of films, including 10 more that would make the National Film Registry (well, 9 1/2, he only directed part of “How the West Was Won“).
- Among Ford’s later NFR films: Abraham Lincoln goes from glorified cameo to leading man in 1939’s “Young Mr. Lincoln“, which technically is a prequel to this movie.
- The real life Transcontinental Railroad still exists, though large portions of the track have been rerouted and abandoned, and of course the original track has long been replaced and upgraded. The closest approximation to the original still running is the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville.