The Iron Horse Review
“Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is this pictorial history of the first transcontinental railroad.” So opens John Ford’s 1924 silent epic The Iron Horse, a tale of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Not quite as historically accurate as the opening title card may suggest, Ford’s film is a grand tale of the mythic West that he spent so much of his professional career exploring.
The Iron Horse tells both a small and a large story over its more than two-hour runtime, focusing both on the story of the building of the actual railroad and the smaller romantic story of Davy Brandon (George O’Brien) and Miriam Marsh (Madge Bellamy).
The Iron Horse was a film that really helped make O’Brien a star and his pairing here with Ford was the first of many successful films directed by Ford and starring O’Brien (he also starred in Murnau’s Sunrise in 1927).
With charisma and a commanding physical presence it’s easy to see why he was an appealing choice for leading man and his background in stunt work made him the ideal choice for more action heavy roles such as this. Bellamy, despite a much lesser role, shines in The Horse Horse too with wonderfully mischievous glances that really suit scenes such as the one in which she manipulates the railroad workers into doing something they previously said they weren’t willing to do.
Ford directs these kind of scenes, those that communicate subtlety in human interactions, with real skill, making good use of edits and changes in the framing to convey visually what is being underlined by the dialogue in the intertitles. The action scenes are equally assured with clear sequences in which motivations and actions are accurately communicated to the audience. The Iron Horse could actually quite easily play without intertitles and an audience would find it incredibly easy to follow.
Ford’s fingerprints, his love for Lincoln and the mythologising of ‘The West’ for instance, are all over this early silent offering but also evident are Ford’s talents in effectively telling a compelling story on film.