David Brandon (James Gordon) is a surveyor in the Old West who dreams that one day the entire North American continent will be linked by railroads. However, to make this dream a reality, a clear trail must be found through the Rocky Mountains. With his boy Davy (Winston Miller), David sets out to find such a path, but he’s ambushed by a tribe of Indians led by a white savage, Peter Jesson (Cyril Chadwick); while the boy manages to escape, David is killed. Years later, the adult Davy Brandon (George O’Brien) still believes in his father’s dream of a transcontinental railroad, and legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln has made it an official mandate. Davy is hired on as a railroad surveyor by Thomas Marsh (Will R. Walling), the father of his childhood sweetheart Miriam (Madge Bellamy). While Davy hopes to win Miriam’s heart as he helps to find the trail that led to his father’s death years ago, he’s disappointed to discover that Miriam is already married — and shocked to discover her husband is Peter Jesson, now working with the railroad as a civil engineer. As the Union Pacific crew presses on to their historic meeting at Promitory Point, Davy must find a way to earn Miriam’s love and uncover Peter’s murderous past.
“Dave Kehr” wrote:
Having watched The Iron Horse in the new Fox version (with its excellent orchestral score by Christopher Caliendo) , I can say with some confidence that Ford’s first epic (the fourth of five features he would release in 1925) remains an astounding achievement, a suite of embedded narratives that expand and comment on each other, as audacious in its way as Griffith’s Intolerance. Abraham Lincoln makes his first of many appearances in Ford’s work as a demiurge who places the two main actions in movement by a sort of divine decree — signing the law that will create the transcontinental railroad while blessing the romantic union of the two leads (George O’Brien and Madge Bellamy), whose delayed by inevitable marriage becomes the prinicipal metaphor for the film’s theme of unification through difference.
The unification theme is played out visually (the division in the mountain range that becomes the pass through which the Union Pacific will travel), politically (the ex-Confederate and Union soldiers working side by side on the line), spatially (the train will unify East and West as well as North and South, with the “horizontal” thrust of the train tracks played in parallel to the “vertical” vector of the cattle drive approaching the northern construction site from Texas).
Ford frequently interrupts the main narrative, sometimes with historical asides (such as the little disquisitions on historical figures like Buffalo Bill or Wild Bill Hickok), sometimes with comic subplots that reflect and parody the main themes (a marriage between a railroad worker and a tiny saloon girl that dissolves in divorce after ten hours), frequently with the funerals and farwells that are close to Ford’s heart.
The Indians are, typically for Ford, shown as dangerous innocents, stirred into violence by a greedy white man (the land speculator Bauman). Capitalism, not race, is the villain here, as it is in the vast majority of Westerns. The Indians are treated with a distanced respect, largely untainted by the condescending sentimentality that Ford would later employ. In the film’s symbolic order they become the embodiment of a reactionary anti-progess, a resistance to historical momentum that will inevitably be overcome (a theme played out visually when an Indian band tries to surround and stop a steam engine, which of course powers up and charges right through them). Progress in Ford is always tinged with a sense of tragedy and loss, and here it is the Indians who symbolize a natural and noble past that will be missed but must be left behind.
Davy, the George O’Brien character, is a protean figure whose role constantly changes: the son of the surveyor who first discovered the crucial pass, he is in turn a Pony Express rider, a forward scout for the railroad, a gang leader and finally, a simple track worker, who (in a classic Ford moment) hammers in the actual spike that unifies the Eastern and Western branches of the line in a moment of silence and solitude, and is then content to participate only as one of the crowd in the staged political spectacle of the driving of the Golden Spike. The film ends on a subtly self-reflexive note, as the photographer assigned to record this purely theatrical moment sets up his shot and starts moving back to his camera — but the film fades to black before he is able to trip the shutter. The suspended photograph is, one realizes as the end title comes up, the film we have just seen.cHere, for the first time in Ford’s work, the legend becomes fact, and Ford duly prints the legend.
On the Different Versions
For years, the only available version of The Iron Horse was the British cut, which was considered by most critics and historians as the inferior version. According to historian Tag Gallagher, Ford shot two negatives simultaneously (a common practice in the day), one for domestic prints and one for foreign. Apart from changes in text of the intertitles (including, in one instance, the renaming of a character), the British cut features fewer moving camera shots during outdoor action scenes and changes the rhythm of Ford’s editing.
“DVD Beaver” wrote:
According to Tag Gallagher (Ford’s biographer) the BFI version is the inferior one. He did a review of it in Film International, watching both versions on two different monitors at the same time. Aside from changing some names (and the dedication), the BFI edition (which was put out by Fox) uses a second take for virtually every shot, and in each instance the second take is very nice but also a bit inferior, and almost always farther away (sometimes extreme long shot in BFI, full shot in US). In addition there is some exciting montage during an Indian attack which is omitted in the BFI version.
Dave Kehr wrote:
The Iron Horse (1924), a sweeping account of the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, established Ford as a major director. It is presented here, a bit confusingly, in two different versions: an “international version” that runs 2 hours 12 minutes and a “U.S. version” with a running time of 2 hours 29 minutes. Though the export version has been subjected to extensive digital restoration and will probably look more pleasing to the casual viewer, the domestic, taken from a print held by the Museum of Modern Art, is the one to see. It has more scratches and speckles but is truer to Ford’s intentions.
Language(s):Silent, English Intertitles