The Iron Horse (1924)

“Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is this pictorial history of the building of the first American transcontinental railroad.”

‘The Iron Horse’, directed by John Ford in 1924, is a silent American western movie. The film follows the development and construction of the transcontinental railroad. The focus is on the small stories of the individuals involved, on the corruption of the businessman who push the deal through, on the hardship of the workers and on the dangers faced from the Native Americans whose land is being steamrollered. As with Ford’s later films such as ‘Stagecoach’ and ‘The Searchers’, ‘The Iron Horse’ makes the most of the sweep and scale of the American landscape. Ford is an expert at storytelling, not just against this backdrop, but using it to complement his plot. The treatment of the Native Americans is uncomfortable, as is his approach to class and gender, Ford tells the human side of his story in broad-brushstrokes that focuses instead on the un-nuanced drama of the challenge of construction and adventure of pushing west. For all this, the sense of scale and the lavish details in the film give it an immersive quality. This is also the start of another one of Ford’s preoccupations, one that will continue to be in evidence right up until ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, that of the effect the railroad has on the West. Ford’s films often seem to try to pinpoint the end of the West, rather than the more romantic and nostalgic period of freedom and wildness that existed before the railroad. As such, there is a curiously maudlin, almost dystopian feel to his western movies.

Would I recommend it? I would turn to his later movies first, as a silent film, ‘The Iron Horse’ is spectacular but feels more like a series of tableau than a consistent film. Watch in a double bill with ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’.


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