By Hector Arkomanis. 

The main story–the construction of the railway–is fairly well known by now, but that only makes Ford’s poetry even more noticeable here: the human figure set against sublime landscapes[1]; documentary-like scenes of men laying tracks on the fields and of buffalo cattle being lead across the plane to feed the men at work; old trains, these powerful machines that out of all arts only cinema ever treated with such fascination. Then, there is Ford the anthropologist, with an interest in men’s ways and customs. As, for example, when ‘this bar of liquor’ is transformed almost instantly, by the shifting around of tables and chairs, to a ‘court of law’; or, the sense of a community forming, eloquently conveyed in the scenes of human activity/work. And the singing! Anyone who has watched even a couple of films by Ford cannot have failed to notice that there always is at least one scene of singing: shared, not solitary. The Iron Horse is a silent film, but Ford does not balk at putting the lyrics on screen for us to read after we see the men singing. Incidentally, the score of the film is one of these rare examples of musical sensitivity, switching seamlessly from playful variations on popular American melodies to original material.

iron_horse1Patriotic sentiments abound in the film, but the exact nature of Ford’s patriotism remains hard to pin down. For decades, it has eluded most critics. For one thing, in Ford’s films there is always a fascinating gap between subject and commentary. And so one of his greatest preoccupations, sacrifice, has so far gone relatively unmentioned, remaining hidden behind or between what appear to be the subjects: history, legend, progress, etc. These have all been identified as recurring themes in his oeuvre and rightly so. Yet, Ford’s most powerful scenes emerge from the collisions of these gigantic forces. In The Iron Horse, when a new passage has been discovered and the course of the rail has to change, the relatively newly formed town is abandoned without further thought or hesitation. The sense of adventure is recreated here, largely due to the way the film was made[2]. The depiction on this mobile existence of whole towns during these early stages of progress is Ford at his most agile and expressive. The scene comes to a quiet culmination with two workers laying the last shovelfuls of earth on a man’s grave. They cut the process short by not filling the hole entirely. The wife stands over it–no close-ups on her face, just her silhouette in a long shot from the rear–mourning the husband while the two men wander off, following the leaving carts.

So the idea of progress is mainly understood through sacrifice. The Western genre has often been linked to ancient Greek tragedy, an even though this comparison is credulous when it comes to structure –which is crucial to any appreciation of ancient dramatists–there is some truth to it when one thinks of moral conflict arising out of circumstance, such as place, war, and family. The root of the conflict is always moral, of course. That is to say it presupposes, at least according to Aristotle, that both protagonist and antagonist have moral or intellectual stances, which they have to live up to and which they cannot light-heartedly shove aside[3].

IronHorse_720x500The spirituality in Ford’s films largely stems from the focus on individuals and the personal choices they have to make for the fulfilment of common goals and aspirations[4]. This is also where Ford searches to find the greatness of humans. And so, all these happy endings one is always forced to take not vehemently, but silently, with a bitter taste left in the mouth. In this case, the title Iron Horse cleverly alludes to the Native American idea of the train. The railways may have united the East and the West and laid the foundations of the modern States, but they also cut the country’s destiny violently off from its roots. The Native American pace of walking or riding was forever interrupted and man’s relation to land would never be the same[5]. When the protagonist chased by the Indian riders finally climbs on the train, you cannot help being stricken by their helplessness against the machine.

The short documentary feature Then a Dream Came, included in the extras, is a welcome addition. Though its focus is somewhat loose–it mixes biography with frame to frame analysis and specific information about The Iron Horse with mentions of stars in other Ford films–it contains some wonderful insights into the making of the film, evocative pictures of the place where Ford lived, and a surprisingly pleasant look at a location that Ford used time and again in his films. The voice of the narrator–a Ford biographer–is uncharacteristic of features like this one. Its lovely frailty echoes a genuine fondness for the man and his work.

Hector Arkomanis teaches History of Architecture in London Metropolitan University, Faculty of Architecture and Spatial Design. He also teaches a course called Cinema and the City.

The Iron Horse received a DVD release in the United Kingdom as part of Eureka Entertainment’s “The Masters of Cinema” series. Special features an alternate international version of the film, audio commentary by by scholar Robert S. Birchard, Then Came a Dream exclusive video essay by Tag Gallagher, PDF of original shooting script, and a 40-page illustrated booklet containing vintage artwork and publicity notes. 

[1] Sometimes the painted version of a landscape is curiously favoured over the photographed one, which comes as a pleasant surprise.

[2] Ford’s crew lived in the fake towns they built as setting for the film and were actually laying these tracks, half a century before Herzog’s crew carried a boat over a hill in the wonderful and much celebrated Fitzcaraldo.

[3] The friction between Wayne and Fonda in Fort Apache is perhaps the most obvious example, at least from the 30 or so films by Ford that I am familiar with.

[4] Lincoln’s depiction here–the subtly frail posture as he walks down the corridor to meet senators–and his forgetfulness of earlier encounters belie, more than anything, a troubled person. Incidentally, Lincoln’s historical stature owes a lot to the fervent support he got from intellectuals during his time but also later. Ford shared with other artists, Whitman being the most prominent and profound, an almost pathological admiration for Lincoln, which one feels they imprinted into the American consciousness.

[5] Telegraphy might have altered the message speed, but not the nature of communication: essentially it was only an improvement on the method of communicating with rings of smoke. Poles replaced beacons and the process became more automated, but the impact on the way of life, and on man’s philosophical perception of himself, was absolutely minor compared to that of the steam engine.

One thought on “The Iron Horse (1924)”

  1. Ford is one of the most mysterious and misunderstood directors in the American cinema — and it’s interesting to see that nearly everyone has a different take on his films. For myself — watch out — The Searchers leaves me absolutely cold, with its blatant racism with regard to Native Americans, and its concomitantly obvious sentimentality — and The Sun Shines Bright, with Stepin Fetchit in a leading role, still playing out his tired, racist shtick in 1953, is simply an embarrassment.

    But early Ford is clean, simple, direct, and The Iron Horse is an excellent example of this — a pattern that would continue all the way up until The Grapes of Wrath in 1940. Ford for me will always be a site on contestation – looking at Sergeant Rutledge, for example, I want to rescue Woody Strode from the film’s patronizing narrative, but then just two years later, Ford knocks out one of his best films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence – so go figure.

    The more Ford we can see the better, and the more we talk about him the better; this is the man who was, perhaps more than any other filmmaker, the architect of the cinematic version of “Manifest Destiny” in films like Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine, and even if he finally did make a stab at some deeper understanding of the gigantic land grab it presented in Cheyenne Autumn, Ford remains the person who gave us a deeply distorted vision of the American west, wandering forever in Monument Valley, lost, and never really arriving at his destination.

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