Sunday, 22 September 2013

Kept a rollin’… The Iron Horse (1924)

When I studied history, we used to experiment with counterfactual analysis and one of the key questions was what would American economic development have been like without the railroads? You might just as well ask what American film would be like without John Ford…

From a modern standpoint The Iron Horse looks like the proto-typical “John Ford film” – a big-scale western – yet by the time he came to make it he had made over fifty films of varying types and, after his last silent western two years later, he didn’t make another until a thing called Stagecoach in 1939.

Reputations can be a put off and few loom as large as Mr Ford whose personal courage gets rather conflated with his work as a film director. Association with a specific genre can also be a disincentive especially Westerns which, even by this stage had become something of a cliché: the narrative, literally, running on rails... Yet, what can you make of John Ford as a film-maker and, stripping all preconceptions away, did he make enduring entertainment? Does The Iron Horse still stand on its own four metallic feet?

There’s also that hard man rep… I like the story of Ford’s publicly bawling out an aged film-maker fallen on hard times whilst secretly arranging for his secretary to help pay his wife’s medical bills and set them both up with a pension for life: he had a soft heart which he seemingly hid under the gruff exterior. Does this show in his films? There are certainly clues in The Iron Horse which is fuelled by dreams, romance and comedy as much as violence and duplicity.

But isn’t John Ford also the ultimate Republican and aren’t there political difficulties on a par with Birth of a Nation – in which Ford had briefly appeared as a Klan member? Interestingly, Ford’s baddy is actually a white man who incites the Cheyenne whilst the Pawnee are working with the white men. There are many films which came after this one which dealt a less even hand to the Native Americans although I’m not saying it's twenty first century politically correct…

Chief John Big Tree is un-credited as the Cheyenne Chief but Ford paints his tribe as heroic in their own way… mislead by white greed. As the above still shows, there was respect and he avoids Griffiths’ simplistic view and need to demonise.

That’s not to say that The Iron Horse isn't entirely objective... there’s some sugar in there as, not for the first time or the last, Hollywood improves History…

At the start we see a man called Brandon (James Gordon) who has a dream to build a railroad across the USA, his friend Thomas Marsh (Will Walling) is not convinced and thinks it’s all moonshine. Brandon’s son Davy and Marsh’s daughter Miriam play games based on surveying - the acorn has not fallen far from the tree.

Brandon and his son set off as Miriam cries and their other friend, Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull) tells Marsh that one day men like him will be building Brandon’s dream.

Brandon meets his fate
Just after they find a route through the mountains – one that will be 200 miles shorter than the Indian trail, Brandon is ambushed and killed by a group of Cheyenne. Before he dies he recognises their ring-leader as white… he is killed for his silence as young Davy looks on in helpless horror.

Cut forward many years and Abraham has become president – just like we all knew he would… In spite of the Civil War raging, he approves the construction of a single railway and, as predicted, Marsh is one of the men working to make this happen as the Union Pacific Railway Company builds westward and the Central Pacific heads east…

The film attempts to be as historically accurate as entertainment permits, showing the temporary cities that grew up around this vast project in California and Nevada. We see buffalo and bison being herded by one William Cody (Buffalo Bill…as played by George Waggner) as well as Wild Bill Hickcok who brought cattle across huge distances to feed the workers.

The workforces were pushed to the limit and, in one of many lighter touches, we see a grown up Miriam (Madge Bellamy) rousing the tired and disaffected to one last push on behalf of her father. One of the supervisors, Corporal Casey (J. Farrell MacDonald), looks on aghast “but ye have to swear at them!”… apparently not if you’re pretty.

Madge Bellamy
Casy and his two mates Sgt. Slattery (Francis Powers) and Pvt. Schultz (Jim Welch) provide comic relief with serious on the side. It serves its purpose in this relatively long film.

One of the money men involved in the project is Deroux - named Bauman in the "International" version of the film – played by Fred Kohler, who seems to have plenty to hide.

Fred Kohler
A rider comes bolting out of the dust followed by dozens of Indians, he heads towards a locomotive carrying Marsh’s team and somehow managers to scramble on board. It turns out to be Davy, who’s grown up (as strapping George O'Brien) and fighting for his father’s dream. He and Miriam have instant sparks a-flying but for some reason she’s engaged to Peter Jesson (Cyril Chadwick)…

Jesson is easily swayed by Ruby...
Deroux has a stake in the railway going the long way round the mountains and recruits local good-time girl/sex worker Ruby (Gladys Hulette) to persuade him that there’s no such thing as the rumoured short-cut. Jesson puts up very little resistance and is soon committed to the bad guys.

Deroux makes sure Jesson accompanies Davy in search of the ravine his father had showed him and, as the young man climbs down to investigate, he cuts the safety rope with an axe leaving him to fall to his doom…or so it appears.

Davy takes a fall
There’s a wonderful brawl once Davy returns to denounce Jesson and Ford handles the build up well… you could cut the tension in the saloon with a Bowie Knife. Miriam makes Davy promise to make peace with her fiancé but Jesson’s a fool to himself and goads Davy into delivering the beating he undoubtedly deserves. But in wining Davy also loses as Miriam feels betrayed by his brutish course of action.

All the same, the route follows Davy’s path-finding and Deroux encourages his indian comrades to step up their disruptive attacks, leading up to the conflagration that marks the film’s real climax. The Cheyenne swirl around the train as the workers mount a desperate defence as even the women join in.

As Pawnee troops ride like the wind to attempt a rescue, Davy discovers who Deroux really is and the two fight it out in the most manly fashion, their clothes simply falling of them as they wrestle to the death…

Needless to say, this is not the film’s actual climax as the coda dutifully shows the completion of both sets of tracks culminating in a re-enactment of the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869. Replicas of the two locos involved, the Union Pacific No. 119 and Jupiter are used, even though they are claimed to be the originals (which were scrapped in 1910).

A country united by rail… will Miriam and Davy follow suit?

As history lesson, The Iron Horse is still pretty useful, in spite of the odd liberty. It was interesting to see the movable communities that sprang up and down in order to support the great project and the logistics of maintaining the labourer’s food supply had also never been connected with the “Buffalo” in Bill in my mind at least.

The filming of the scenery is, of course exceptional and really brings home the extent of this engineering achievement. Ford uses his thousands of extras well, be they cattle, men or horses and this is all the more remarkable for his working from the barest of scripts. Some sections could do with a trim – as the New York Times noted in 1924… yet Ford mixes his various strands well and you do care about Davy and Miriam.

Straping George O'Brien
Fred Kohler is suitably malevolent as the irredeemably nasty Deroux whilst George O'Brien gives a muscular performance as Davy even if he lacks the depth of his character in Sunrise (interestingly Ford was a huge admirer of Murnau… must watch for that in his later work).

Madge Bellamy is pretty good as the slightly prissy Miriam but Gladys Hulette gives a more convincing turn as Ruby the tart with a heart: a smaller role that perhaps shows the lack of character depth elsewhere.

I watched the Masters of Cinema DVD which is available from Moviemail at a very reasonable price. It features both the 133 minute UK and the longer US versions and a suitably stirring score from Christopher Caliendo.

Ford's little fib... replicas were used

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