Opening with a dedication to Abraham “The Builder” Lincoln and climaxing with the symbolic 1869 marriage of the Central and Union Pacific railroads, The Iron Horse was John Ford’s first official epic, as well as his breakthrough hit. Like D.W. Griffith, Ford uses the august figure of Lincoln (played by Charles Edward Bull) as a link between the film’s fictitious narrative and its historical background, though the director’s own account of the birth of a nation is divided less between North and South than between East and West, a national struggle that is reconciled by the progressive locomotive of the title. It’s a large canvas, and one that the filmmaker, then 29, often has trouble filling: The integration of the insipid couple at the film’s center (colorless George O’Brien, maidenly Madge Bellamy) with the epochal events swirling around them is clumsy, while Indians are portrayed not as a people but as just one of the defiant forces of nature that have to be braved by the railroad. What comes through loud and clear is Ford’s fascination with American history, which, despite the ponderous pace, powerfully conveys the forward push of a country, still in its adolescence, sorting through idealism and pragmatism. For the most part, The Iron Horse‘s interest rests on prophetic elements that would become staples of both the western genre (the saloon that doubles as courthouse, the Indian attacks, the barroom brawls) and of Ford’s career (nothing is as moving as watching the way a dance-hall girl lights a cigarette and recognizing its reincarnation four decades later in 7 Women). Finally a minor work despite its vast ambitions, the film is best seen as a light foundation, with the Old West venerated by a budding poet whose gaze would grow darker and more questioning.
- 133 min
- John Ford
- Charles Kenyon, John Russell, Charles Darnton
- George O'Brien, Madge Bellamy, Charles Edward Bull, Cyril Chadwick, Will Walling, Francis Powers, J. Farrell MacDonald, Jim Welch, George Waggner, Fred Kohler, James Marcus, Gladys Hulette
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