Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Iron Horse

Directed by John Ford
The United States of America

Among the multitude of great filmmakers who have graced the world with their work, there are a handful who’s names are spoken not only with respect, but with reverence.  These are the trailblazers, the pioneers, the explorers of cinematic possibility and potential.  Before the independent auteurs, before the big name Hollywood directors, before the French iconoclasts, there were the progenitors: the first group of filmmakers who literally had to invent the rules because there weren’t any.  These include the magical Georges Méliès, the misunderstood D.W. Griffith, the cataclysmic Giovanni Pastrone, the bombastic Cecil B. DeMille, and the pensive Victor Sjöström.  Every innovation, every technique, and every revolution can, in some way, be traced back to their work. 

But there was another progenitor of cinema who is frequently discounted from his esteemed colleagues.  His name and work is legendary, but rarely recognized for the monumental impact he had on cinematic technique and the evolution of cinema as we know it.  His name was John Ford.  Directing over 60 films from 1917-1928 alone, by the time that he died he had made nearly 150 films.  He made films of nearly every conceivable genre: drama, comedy, romance, war.  But of all of his work, his most beloved films were his Westerns.  Before Ford, Westerns were cheap, pulp films that were basically mass produced.  But he changed everything in 1939 with Stagecoach, the film that single-handedly proved that Westerns could be serious films worthy of artistic merit.  He would then go on to direct some of the most critically acclaimed Westerns of all time: My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).  His Westerns were so influential that they defied their genre, being considered not only among the greatest Westerns ever made, but among the greatest films ever made.

But Ford was making Westerns long before he hit the big-time with Stagecoach.  Many of his first silent films were Westerns.  But it wouldn’t be until about seven years after he started that Ford finally got it right.  If Edwin Stanton Porter invented the Western in 1903 with The Great Train Robbery, then Ford perfected it twenty-one years later with The Iron Horse.

The Iron Horse was a monster of a film, clocking in at over two hours.  The plot spans several years, many states, and a massive cast of characters.  The film follows the construction of America’s first transcontinental railroad through the eyes of two different groups of people: the administrators who battle corrupt land-grabbers and Indians all for the sake of progress and the actual workers who battle unspeakable conditions and death all for the sake of a decent day’s wage.

The former group is primarily represented by Davy Brandon, a young man who as a child saw his father murdered by a band of Cheyenne after discovering a shortcut for the railroad.  Now grown up, he is determined to continue his father’s dream and complete the railroad.  The only thing that rivals his determination to build the railroad is his affection for his childhood belle, Miriam.  However, she is engaged to Peter Jesson, the Union Pacific Railroad’s chief engineer.

But Brandon has another problem on his hands: Miriam’s father, one of the chief financial backers of the project, can’t continue to support the railroad if a shorter route through Cheyenne country is found.  Brandon remembers the old shortcut found by his father.  But Bauman, the local landowner who benefits from the railroad going the long route, tries to kill him before he can share his secret.  This is only complicated by the fact that years ago Bauman was a member of the group of Cheyenne who killed Brandon’s father!

That’s all well and good.  But where the film really shines is with the day laborers and lay people who construct the railroad while their administrators hunt for vengeance and love.  Much like in his later films, Ford lovingly lingers on the colorful cast of immigrants who would lay the tracks that would connect the continent.  Ford’s films project a belief that America is only as strong as the immigrants that populate it and work its soil.  So his films are peppered with Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Italian, and Asian characters.  Here in The Iron Horse we are treated to Welsh and Italian track layers who sing bawdy yet sad songs while they work.  A large contingent of Chinese cooks keep the other workers fed (interestingly some of them had worked on the actual transcontinental railroad in 1869).

Ford uses these characters as the basis for several vignettes that break up the film with much needed comedic relief.  In one scene we watch three rough and tough Irishmen turn to babies during a trip to the local barber-dentist.  In another we see an immigrant couple get married at one train stop only to get divorced at the next.  And in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a prostitute shoots a man in a bar who gets too enthusiastic with unwanted flirting. The local judge, the “honorable” Mr. Haller, sets up an impromptu court right in the barroom and finds her not guilty.  After all, he reasons, it was widely known that she carried a pistol.  By getting too friendly with her, he was willingly committing suicide.

The only thing more entertaining than the film itself is the story of how it was created.  The Iron Horse was a massive and herculean production.  In a fascinating essay by David Kiehn, he recounts horrifying, yet captivating tales of Ford’s behind-the-scenes struggles.  Of principal concern was the unheard of number of production staff.  20 railroad sleeper cars from the Al G. Barnes Circus were rented just to house the cast and crew.  That’s not even counting the extra railcars needed to house the equipment and materials for constructing the film’s sets and props. The crew constructed a life-size town set with practical rooms which additionally served as living quarters, holding areas,  and storage space (the film’s editing lab set up station in the post office set).

The film crew was met with some of the nastiest weather imaginable.  The temperature was consistently freezing and snow frequently covered the sets.  The cast and crew were frequently called upon to clear the set of snow.  Lefty Hough, the property man, recalled one such incident:

“We brought the cattle in, the horses and everything else. We swept the whole town off. It may sound unbelievable, but I don’t suppose we lost more than a couple of hours. Well, now, you take 400 people, horses and cowboys, and Indians and everything else—they can sweep a street in pretty quick time.”

The sleeper cars were miserable in the cold as they had no heat.  Many wore the soldier costumes continuously just to stave off the chill.  Tragically, one of the actors developed pneumonia and died three weeks later.

But for all of their struggles, they were rewarded when the film became a smash hit.  But it was more than just a great success...it was the birth of Ford as a film master.  Many of the tropes and ideas that would permeate his later work and make his such a distinctive filmmaker were on full display in The Iron Horse.  Ford’s love of trains is obviously a central element.  In many of his films, particularly his Westerns, trains represent civilization.  They are the vehicles through which civilized characters are brought face to face with the untamed wilderness.  In a sense, Ford uses trains as a herald for progress: trains are a death warrant for the old Western way of life.  In The Iron Horse, the completion of the railroad represents a nation broken by Civil War being healed.  It signals the end of the Indians who roamed free throughout the land.  It is a triumph of man and industry over nature.

Also prevalent is Ford’s ideas concerning justice and fair play.  Throughout his career, Ford was an obvious supporter of manly brawling and fighting as a way to settle disputes...as long as they were fair.  The scene from The Searchers comes to mind when the Reverend referees over an impromptu fistfight between two young men over a woman.  In What Price Glory? (1952) two old friends slash rivals greet each other with spontaneous boxing matches.  In How Green Was My Valley (1941) young Huw Morgan is not only encouraged to fight back against bullies, but rewarded with money for each injury received.  This is all prophesied in The Iron Horse when Brandon corners Bauman in the film’s climax.  Despite having a clear shot, he throws down his guns and attacks Bauman with his two fists.  To kill him with a gun wouldn’t be enough...Brandon has to defeat him in a fair fight.

The Iron Horse is not without it flaws.  The production went way over schedule and budget.  As a result, parts of the film were obviously rushed during production.  But the film remains as a startling testament to the inherent skills of John Ford.  He would go on to refine the techniques and ideas introduced in this film in his later work.  As such, it remains a crucial entry in Ford’s filmography.  Sadly, few have ever seen it, let alone heard of it.  But to those willing to look, The Iron Horse is an immensely rewarding film.  It shows an artist in transition from being a simple pulp director to becoming one of the most important, influential, and beloved filmmakers of all time.  After The Iron Horse, the rest was history.

Editor's Note: I have uploaded The Iron Horse to this blog's youtube account.



  1. Very nice write-up. I was not aware of the behind the scenes bits. I am a newbie to Ford's work but The Iron Horse was revelatory.

  2. Glad that you like it! I hope that you'll watch it now that I've posted it on youtube!

    Also...would you like to participate in my monster movie blogathon?

  3. I looked at it briefly yesterday before life interrupted. My initial thought was Mothra (I have an unhealthy attachment) but that's early 60s. Let me try to identify a target and get back to you (unless you have a suggestion).

  4. Great! Looking forward to your pick!

  5. Amazing that Ford was able to make so many films. I've seen a few of them (Stagecoach, The Searchers) and I'll have to check this one out sometime since you put it on youtube.
    Also good to have the reviews back!

  6. Ha! Thanks, bro! I had almost forgotten that I wrote reviews...

  7. Nathanael,

    Nice. I like the way Ford mixes in darker moments of greed and corruption in what is primarily a salute to America's nation building of the west.

  8. As a train afficianado I'm quite attracted by the theme of this film, not to mention your salivational review. Searchers is the only Ford film I've seen. God willing,I may see it one day.

  9. @twentyfourframes

    True...but I've always found Ford's work to have streaks of optimism in them. I mean, this is the man who shaved off the last third of "The Grapes of Wrath" so that it could have a happy ending. My point is that Ford was a realist: he recognized the evil and greed that permeated American society, but he celebrated the country's ability to overcome it.

  10. @S.M. Rana

    You don't have to wait to watch it! I posted it on youtube! The link to the film is on the right side of my page! Just go to the section entitled "Films of Youtube" and click the link that says "The Iron Horse." That will take you right to it!

  11. Nate, this is just a really excellent review of a pivotal film in Ford's career. Your historical facts, behind the scenes stories and description of the movie are great -- but I have to say, your beautifully written thoughts and feelings about Ford himself and his vision were the best part of this piece. It's not easy to write about someone whose work you love without going overboard (I know from my own experience!), but you hit it perfectly. Kudos for a wonderful piece of writing, and thanks so much for making the movie available! I've never seen it, but I will now!

    All my best,

  12. Thanx for uploading! I'll check that soon! I'm always glad to see some Ford love because I think he's sometimes underappreciated. His mise en scène is sober and he always puts his camera in an angle that we don't "feel" we are watching through it!

  13. I'm glad that you like it! I hope that you watch it soon and do your own write-up! I'd love to know your opinion! And if you still have a hankering for Ford afterwards, don't worry...he'll be making another appearance on this site very soon.

  14. Nathanael,
    I loved this write up! Getting a behind the scenes peek at Ford's work is always welcome.

    You always get the feeling that Ford put his heart and soul into every project, leaving nothing left which makes any and all of his films worth watching. The Master of Westerns did the same with this silent. This was also my first film introduction to George O'Brien and Bellamy gave a fine performance, much preferable over her playing a Zombie. Ha Ha

    My dad who loves his westerns had avoided this film because it was a silent but he gave it a chance several years ago and it really did change his mind. With Ford, just like Chaplin, didn't need sound to make a beautiful film that left an impact.

    Another well thought out review!

  15. Thank you!

    So...you had seen this film before I wrote the review? Dang...

    Well...I have another forgotten classic by John Ford coming up this week, too. Maybe THIS time I can pick one that you haven't seen!

  16. Nathanael,
    You seem surprised that I've actually seen an old film. LOL It's rare but I have seen a few that you've reviewed.
    Now work harder and I'll be back to see which rare gem you've chosen!