The Iron Horse (Fox, 1924)
Updated: Apr 19
John Ford's first great Western
When Paramount came out with The Covered Wagon, in 1923, things changed. For years Westerns had been one- or two-reelers, the occasional feature, theater fodder for the masses – popular, yes, but never considered adult or mature entertainment really, and often looked down on by the critics. The rather somber and sober William S Hart Westerns had an adult aspect but they had given way to lighter fare with dashing celluloid cowboys in dudish costumes, as the likes of Tom Mix galloped across the silver screen for the entertainment of, mainly, a juvenile audience. But The Covered Wagon gave us a huge, nation-spanning epic as it told the story of the wagon train pioneers on the Oregon Trail. It wasn’t long before William Fox replied with his own great project, the tale of the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s (the subtext being that the movie would outclass Paramount’s picture just as the railroads rendered obsolete the wagon trains). And Fox had John Ford direct it.
Jack Ford had followed in the footsteps of his brother Francis Ford and had worked for Carl Laemmle’s Universal in the 1910s, making Westerns with Harry Carey, such as ones we have recently reviewed, Straight Shooting, Bucking Broadway and Hell Bent. Then Ford moved to Fox in 1920. In the following four years he made half a dozen oaters with actors such as Buck Jones and Hoot Gibson, and even one, Three Jumps Ahead, with Fox megastar Tom Mix. [Daughter Barbara Ford remembered being invited to the birthday party of Mix’s daughter, and the star rode into his Beverley Hills mansion and shot out all the lights of the chandelier, to the utter rapture of all the children. But that’s another story]. Ford campaigned hard to get to direct Fox’s new railroad epic; he really wanted it. He was only 29 when the project started (filming began in January 1924) but had had already amassed a vast amount of experience, much of it with Westerns – he had directed more than a dozen two-reelers and over thirty-five features, which is more than most directors will do in a complete working life. He got the job.
In his biography of John Ford, Scott Eyman says that the West was only slightly less hazardous for filmmakers of the 1920s than it had been for the railroad builders of the 1860s. He has a point. The Indians didn’t attack the film crews but the elements did. Cameraman George Schneiderman (one of the truly greats) said of the location work done in Mexico that they shot scenes from dawn to dusk, “sleeping at night under the well-known Mexican skies”. Most was filmed in Nevada where snow and bitter cold were a frequent scourge but the actors had to work in their shirtsleeves pretending it was summer. The film’s logistics were difficult as well as costly. There were three hundred in the company, most living in tents or railroad cars. The only hot water was from the boiler of the locomotive. They constructed complete railroad towns of North Platte and Cheyenne. Tempers flared. Ford went on a two-day alcoholic bender with the crew of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush which was filming in nearby Truckee. The whole thing cost a quarter of a million dollars – unheard of in those days.
They rigged up a projection room in a railroad car but it was so cold no one could stand it. Ford never saw a foot of the film in rushes. But it was all in his head. There were very few scripts in circulation. That was the way Ford liked it: the cast were forced to rely on him for guidance.
Everyone doubled up. Assistant editor Harold Schuster played eight or nine parts. Every Western actor there ever was seems subsequently to have claimed to have been a railroad worker on The Iron Horse.
It’s a very long picture, 150 minutes (133’ in the TCM cut), said to be the longest to that date (The Covered Wagon had a runtime of 98 minutes). And it moves at a leisurely pace – sometimes you get the feeling that the railroad would have been built faster. But there is no denying it is a fine film, and way superior to James Cruze’s rather plodding work the year before.
The film starts with one of those mendacious prologues:
Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is this pictorial history of the building of the first transcontinental railroad.
This statement is what is commonly known as a lie but no one seemed to mind. Westerns often made the claim to be historically accurate. Why? Perhaps it made them seem more weighty and valuable and added a documentary feel. But if viewers seriously believe that it is accurate “in every particular of fact” then they must be very gullible indeed. I don’t mind if Westerns play fast and loose with history. But I do object when they claim to be true and patently aren’t. Ford did this a lot: he even claimed that he had spoken to an elderly Wyatt Earp who had told him all about the OK Corral and so they shot it in My Darling Clementine "exactly the way it happened". As in Ford’s version Doc Holliday is killed, either Earp’s memory was failing or Ford was talking B.S. But then Ford was an inveterate liar.
The opening scene is a pastoral one of sheep being herded. This was serendipitous: a Basque sheepherder drove his flock across the line of sight while they were setting up. Ford said, “We’ve got to get this in the picture”. The shot is actually rather well framed and beautiful.
Ford could have chosen any number of scenes to illustrate the story of the construction of the railroad. He decided to start in Illinois with an austere and saintly young Abe (Charles Edward Bull) presiding over the community and a visionary surveyor, and his son Davy, gently mocked by a skeptical engineer, and his daughter Miriam. The children are sweet on each other. Abe sides with the surveyor and shares his dream of a transcontinental railroad. The New York Times said of the film that at the première "his make-up as the martyred President is so good that the mere sight of him brought volleys of applause from the spectators."
Westerns often used Lincoln in the first reel, to order the building of the railroads, the telegraph, stage lines or even the idea of Texas-to-Kansas cattle drives, because it gave grandeur and manifest-destiny street-cred (or trail-cred anyway) to the story being told. Ford was a huge admirer of Lincoln (as Young Mr Lincoln would later show) and was especially happy to do this.
Now we see the surveyor and his boy out West “in the Cheyenne hills” seeking out a route for the Union Pacific. They find a steep pass which will save miles (filmed at Beale’s Cut, Newhall, where Ford had shot several earlier movies). The boy in hiding sees his father murdered and scalped by a sinister half-breed with only two fingers. The scene was pretty brutal for the time and must have had a big impact. Some mountain men find the boy and adopt him. The boy is played by Winston Miller, then 14, who would go on to become a great figure in the Western, not as an actor but as a writer. He worked for David O Selznick on the script of Gone With the Wind. Still, we can't all be perfect. He wrote My Darling Clementine for Ford, and everlasting praise goes to him for that, and later good Westerns like Station West and Fury at Furnace Creek. Later still he became a producer, doing The Virginian TV shows among others.
Other memorable scenes include horses pulling a locomotive up a slope (the poor beasts look to be suffering). In fact one day it was so cold that the engine froze and the train would not budge. Ford invented a solution by moving the camera past the stationary train to give the impression of movement.
There is a frankly absurd episode when the railroad workers sing, drop their tools and pick up rifles, fight off Indians for thirty seconds, then immediately resume work. It is (unintentionally) funny. In fact the song they sing wasn’t written till the 1880s, so that must have slipped by Ford’s “accurate and faithful in every particular”.
Being Ford, there is of course comic relief involving drunken Irishmen. Because it was mid-Prohibition the drinking had to be implied rather than shown but the ‘amusing’ trio of Sergeant Slattery, Corporal Casey and Private Schultz (Francis Powers, J Farrell MacDonald and Jim Welch) are given several scenes, such as the comic extraction of a bad tooth by a frontier dentist. The trio are, though, closer to the Three Stooges than they are to Kipling's Soldiers Three.
Semi-comic are the scenes showing Hell on Wheels, Judge Haller (James A Marcus)’s mobile courtroom/saloon, very much a take on Judge Roy Bean. The judge marries a couple and divorces them ten hours later. Saloon gal Ruby (Gladys Hulette) is insulted by a card player so she shoots him with a derringer (studio publicity said it was Wild Bill Hickok's derringer). She is promptly acquitted by the judge. In a classic scene, barmen take down the mirror before a fight. Ford is true to his principle of showing ordinary folk as the real doers and makers in American society. The Irish workers, Davy and Miriam, these are everyday people. Even Lincoln in the White House, of course, is from the famous log cabin and 'one of us'.
Various famous characters appear. Buffalo Bill (George Waggner, as George Wagner) provides meat for the crews, and Wild Bill Hickok (Jack Padjan), with a lawman’s badge, drives a herd of cattle up from Texas to Cheyenne to feed the workers. General Dodge (Walter Rodgers) is engineer in chief, anxious to find the shortcut. And Frank North (Charles O’Malley) and his Pawnee scouts ride to the rescue when Cheyennes attack the railroad workers.
The murderous half-breed who had killed that surveyor now re-appears, as landowner Deroux (Fred Kohler), the principal villain of the piece. He will do anything to get the railroad routed through his land, including getting surveyor Jesson (Cyril Chadwick) to lie about the existence of a pass. Now the children we saw in the first reel are grown. Miriam (Madge Bellamy) and Davy (George O’Brien) meet up again as adults. Miriam has a fiancé, none other than the wretched surveyor Jesson. Davy has become a Pony Express rider, allowing for an exciting scene as he athletically leaps from his horse to the moving train to escape Indians. But Davy remembers his daddy’s dream, and that pass in the Cheyenne hills, and is determined to find it again. He survives attempted murder by Jesson (as he slithers down the Newhall cut) and comes back to Cheyenne to fight it out with the rogue. The action scenes are brilliantly staged and shot.
George O’Brien, 25, was the son of San Francisco’s chief of police and had been light-heavyweight champion in the Navy. Later he had a job minding police horses and was taken up by Tom Mix, and worked lugging cameras and stunting for Fox. He even (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Ben Hur. Ford is said to have tested over fifty actors for the part of Davy before settling on O’Brien. But he had to fight William Fox for the actor. Fox wanted an established star for such a big picture. But Ford was adamant, and won the day. He and O’Brien would prove a good match. O’Brien was a good-natured, straightforward, hearty fellow, actually very similar to the character he played. Ford and O'Brien's common heritage, religion and love of the sea helped the relationship greatly (though of course they would later fall out; that was Ford’s way). O’Brien is very winning in The Iron Horse, which would make him a leading Western star of the 1920s and 30s, much more so than the ‘safer’ Bellamy as his amour.
Ford had a rough way with actors, who must do his bidding. He had a colorful type known as Pardner Jones who would shoot. Once he had Pardner shoot the clay pipe out of the mouth of a man named McCluskey without McCluskey being aware. It scared McCluskey terribly and he had a sore jaw for two weeks. To Ford, it was all grist to the mill.
Ford’s laborers are Irish, with one shirking Italian (Colin Chase). Later, Davy joins the rival Central Pacific and we see more Chinese workers but Ford was less interested in these (the actors playing the earlier attacking Indians doubled as Chinese).
The final scene, a re-enactment of the meeting of the two railroads at Promontory Point, is done as a tableau, a representation of the famous photograph. Fox claimed that the locomotives filmed, the Jupiter and the #115, were the actual ones used on the day. Naturally, the marriage of the two lines, birthing the nation, is symbolized by the union of Davy and Miriam, in connubial bliss.
The look of the picture is very attractive. The print quality is still good today and the film is more than watchable. The title cards are very charmingly illustrated. There are some typical elegant Fordian shots, for example of riders passing, their images reflected in the water. When horses storm into town, their breath and the condensation from their sweating bodies nearly obliterate the figures of the townspeople. It’s an enjoyable watch. Of course the whole show is firmly in the Manifest Destiny camp. The continent is 'wilderness' and empty - except for the Indians and they had no business being there. Lincoln's scheme binds East and West, just as he struggled to keep North and South together. The American nation will reach from coast to coast thanks to the courageous and patriotic efforts of the railroad builders. The notion of corporate profit is not addressed at all and the railroad companies are, for once in a Western, noble Americans doing a fine job.
The Iron Horse premiered (six months before The Gold Rush) in New York on August 28, 1924. Fox had taken every available billboard. There were skywriters spelling out the name of the movie over Manhattan. There were Indians on stage and two locomotives with a re-enactment of the driving of the golden spike. The reviews were nearly as enthusiastic as the publicity. “I stood up – I admit it – and cheered,” said The New York Journal. Even The New York Times was almost complimentary. Harrison’s Reports, a trade paper known for its sour reviews, enthused, “Today ‘The Covered Wagon’ stands out as the best western that has ever been turned out. ‘The Iron Horse’ is as good. In some respects it is even better.
Scott Eyman wrote, perhaps (forgivably) a little bit hyperbolically, “With The Iron Horse, Ford created his first masterpiece, and staked out his territory as America’s tribal poet.”