After witnessing the murder of his father by a renegade as a boy, the grown-up Brandon helps to realize his father's dream of a transcontinental railway.After witnessing the murder of his father by a renegade as a boy, the grown-up Brandon helps to realize his father's dream of a transcontinental railway.After witnessing the murder of his father by a renegade as a boy, the grown-up Brandon helps to realize his father's dream of a transcontinental railway.
The story opens with a prologue set in Springfield, Ill., 1853, revolving around Davy Brandon, first as a youngster (Winston Miller) with deep affection towards Miriam Marsh (Peggy Cartwright), his childhood sweetheart. Davy's father (James Gordon) is a surveyor who dreams about the crossing of the western wilderness, while Miriam's father, Thomas Marsh (William Walling), is a skeptic. However, one of the citizens, Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull), believes in this man's theory and knows he'll accomplish his means. Setting out to accompany his father on a mission to survey an appropriate route through the mountains for the coming railroad, Davy bids a tearful farewell to Miriam. During their westward journey, Davy, who is hidden away because of foreseen danger, witnesses the brutal killing of his father by a white man dressed up as an Indian whose only identification if the loss of a thumb and two fingers on his right hand. After burying his father, Davy is taken in by a passing scouting party. A decade later, 1862, Abraham Lincoln is president of the United States; Davy (George O'Brien) is a Pony Express rider out to fulfill his father's dream leading into the building of the Transcontinental Railroad; and Miriam (Madge Bellamy), now engaged to Peter Jesson (Cyril Chadwick), an Eastern surveyor working for her father actually working for Deroux (Fred Kohler), the richest landowner, who stands to profit if the railroad goes through instead of through the pass. After being reunited with Miriam, Jesson finds himself in stiff competition. The two men become bitter enemies, especially after Jesson's attempts in doing away with him. Matters become complex until the golden spike gets hammered into the rail on that historic day of 1869 as east meets west through the continental railroad.
In the supporting cast are Gladys Hulett (Ruby); Jack O'Brien (Dinny); three musketeer pals of J. Farrell MacDonald (Corporal Casey); Francis Powers (Sergeant Slattery); and James Welch (Private Schultz), as well as historical figures of Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickock and John Hay enacted by George Wagner, John Padjan and Stanhope Wheatcroft.
THE IRON HORSE (title indicating the locomotive train) plays like a D.W. Griffith production with prologue, historical figures, flashbacks and epilogue, and like a screen adaptation to an Edna Ferber novel telling its story through the passage of time, along with soap-opera ingredients (complicated love triangle), but no usual conclusions of central characters going through the white hair and wrinkles aging process. Overall, this is John Ford's storytelling, cliché as it may be, placing fictional characters against historic setting, along with the oft-told murder-mystery subplot of a son out to avenge his father's killer, a historical movie that's become an important part of cinema history. Ford, the future four time Academy Award winning director, with a handful of motion pictures to his credit, best known for westerns, would provide similar themes in his future film-making. As popular as THE IRON HORSE was back in 1924, it's amazing that Ford didn't attempt doing a remake, especially in 1939 when westerns reached it peak of popularity. It took Cecil B. DeMille to attempt a similar story with UNION PACIFIC (Paramount, 1939) starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea. Like THE IRON HORSE, UNION PACIFIC, which tells its story in over two hours, features villains, Indian massacres and thousands of extras.
George O'Brien, a rugged actor, was an ideal choice for the role of Davy Brandon. Although he worked under Ford's direction numerous times in latter years, and showed his capability as a dramatic actor in F.W. Murnau's SUNRISE (1927), he never achieved major stardom. He did work steadily mostly in "B" westerns through the early 1950s. Co-star Madge Bellamy offers her typical heroine performance, caught between two men who vie for her affection, but is far from being a strong character. While the acting overall is satisfactory, from today's viewpoint, some heavy melodramatics as the method of fainting by youngster Davy after witnessing his father's massacre, or Bellamy's performance in general, might provoke some laughter. Scenes such as these can be overlooked by great location scenery as Monument Valley, a race against time and action scenes typically found in Ford westerns.
Television history to THE IRON HORSE began when it became one of the movies from the Paul Killiam collection to air on public television's 13-week series of "The Silent Years" (June-September 1975), hosted by Lillian Gish. In her profile about THE IRON HORSE (accompanied by an excellent piano score by William Perry), Gish talks about its location shooting in the Nevada desert, the use of 100 cooks to feed the huge cast, and 5,000 extras consisting of 3,000 railway workers, 1,000 Chinese laborers, many horses and steers. Decades later, THE IRON HORSE made it to the American Movie Classics (1997-1999) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere December 9, 2007 ) accompanied by orchestral score with 15 minutes of additional footage as opposed to the 119 minutes presented on both "The Silent Years," and the Western Channel in 2001. Distributed to home video Critic's Choice in 1997, availability on DVD came a decade later.
THE IRON HORSE may not be historically accurate as promised through its opening inter-titles, but it's sure an ambitious John Ford production to still be entertaining today. (****)
- Oct 8, 2005