THE IRON HORSE (John Ford, 1924)

John Ford’s epic about the construction of a transcontinental railroad is the first great American Western. Ford’s vision is tragic and complex. The film assigns the unification of the nation, East and West, to two individuals from Springfield, Illinois: a man whose son adopts his dream of the railroad after he is murdered; Abe, the father’s rail-splitting friend, who, when U.S. president, will sign legislation authorizing the construction against advice that the nation spend all its money on the current war. With an eye on peace, Lincoln hopes to unify East and West as well as North and South. Lincoln’s offscreen assassination merges with the death of the boy’s father to suggest the awesome price that the realization of the dream exacts.
     And there’s more to pay: the exploitation of foreign labor to make the construction financially feasible; the mass slaughter of buffalo in order to feed the workers; the incitement of Native Americans, who realize that the construction of the railroad, a consolidation of white power, signals their destruction. This is 1924, and Ford, in his twenties, already is, well, Ford. This is a film to make one weep over ambiguous issues of progress and civilization.
     The film falls short of the first rank by admitting too much melodrama and comic relief, but, visually, it astounds. The opening shot, the peaceful mass movement of sheep, lends aching depth to the later, furious shot of buffalo being mowed down for meat. Ford’s use of the moving camera, attuned to the movement of trains, is exemplary. But, above all, there are the brilliant long-shots of the narrow pass between two huge mountains that will provide the means for the railroad’s completion—a symbolical evocation of aspiration and vision, with erotic overtones besides: the pulsating train that will penetrate the Virgin Land.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s