#12 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
There’s something evidently different about this film from Ford’s previous surviving feature films, something from the very beginning. It’s bigger and grander in feel from its opening scene than anything he had made up to this point, and that feeling continues through its runtime as The Iron Horse manages, not always the most gracefully, to tell a very largely scoped story with a strongly intimate human story at the foreground. This is the sort of stuff that Hollywood really became known for, presaged by D.W. Griffith.
This epic story includes the transcontinental railroad, Cheyenne warriors, Pawnee warriors, moving an entire community by rail every few miles to keep up with the tracks, nascent frontier justice, revenge, barroom brawls, romance, and even Abraham Lincoln. The story begins in Springfield, Illinois as Brandon, a dreamer who imagines a country united by a railroad from east to west, packs up his things and takes his young son, Davy, out West. Seeing them off is the young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who takes the dream to heart and signs the bill, as president in the middle of the Civil War, to fund the project. Brandon, though, is killed by a two-fingered bandit leading a group of Cheyenne warriors, Davy being saved by a group of frontiersmen later on.
Years pass, and work has started and progressed on the railroad. The man in charge of the Union Pacific Railroad Company is Thomas Marsh (Will Walling), another man from Springfield, whose daughter, Miriam (Madge Bellamy) is engaged to Thomas’ chief engineer Peter Jesson (Cyril Chadwick) despite her childhood promise to Davy that they would see each other again. The first hour or so of the film is probably the weakest, never bad, but always feeling like a series of short films about separate, but perhaps related, characters. They all manage to come together in the end, though.
Along at the front of the work is the mysterious Deroux (Fred Kohler) who wants to keep the path of the railroad on his own land instead of using any other shorter route that could cut off two-hundred miles from the work. In walks the adult Davy (George O’Brien). Rugged after growing up in the wilds, he ends up in the railroad camp while on the run from some Cheyenne warriors where he tells Thomas of the shorter route through a ravine that his father had shown him just before his untimely death. Deroux, though, has convinced Jesson to kill Davy on the trip out, to prevent the confirmation of the information from ever reaching Marsh. Jesson mucks it up, cutting Davy’s rope while down in the ravine, a fall that Davy miraculously survives. Jesson thinks that Davy is dead, and Davy thinks it was just an accident. He shows back up to camp some days later, confused because the track is bending southward instead of towards the ravine, and things begin to bubble up to the surface.
Davy, dedicated to his puppy dog love of the girl he knew back in Springfield, does what he can to gallantly avoid an actual confrontation with the man who tried to kill him, but when Jesson fires a pistol at him, the fight can’t be avoided. Davy wins, but he broke his word to Miriam. As work continues and these feelings fester, Deroux, frustrated at Jesson’s failure to prevent the return of Davy, reveals his true self to the audience by returning to the Chayenne and showing us his two-fingered right hand. He is the man who killed Davy’s father, and he is going to use his Cheyenne connections to attack the train construction. Davy manages to get away with the engine, returning to the community in time to bring in the men with guns and fight them off, leaving him with a final opportunity to face off with Deroux one on one. Good guys win, of course.
Then, the movie makes an interesting turn. Davy decides to leave the Union Pacific to join the Central Pacific, and the final twenty minutes or so are the race between the two to reach the end of the line, giving us a view of the west to east side of the construction. It’s a steadily building sequence that triumphantly ends in the unification of both ends with Davy meeting his old pals and Miriam again.
It’s straightforward storytelling with great skill and energy by Ford. More than twice as long as his longest previous film, The Iron Horse is grand old Hollywood entertainment, focusing on character, giving them time to breathe and feel real, while putting them into exciting and thrilling situations, this time rooted firmly in America’s past. The romance is well executed with two likeable leads. The action is fast, clear, and exciting. The story itself is interesting and never gets bogged down in details. Aside from the feeling of short films that permeates the film’s first half, the only other complaint I have is that there are some side characters that get a bit too much attention, in particular a trio of railway workers, one Irish, one Italian, and the other born in America, and some of their comedic business, such as when one of them has to go to the dentist at the new town because of a sore tooth. It kind of just sticks out as an unnecessary bit of business, though they do have, overall, a positive impact on the feeling of the film, especially their final moment where one breaks a bottle of champagne on one of the engines meeting in the middle, and another bemoans the waste of alcohol by wiping his finger over the broken inside and licking his finger, angry that he lost out on a drink so delicious.
Still, this is an imperfect but wonderful entertainment that I found a joy to watch.