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.