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John Ford was thirty one years old and already a veteran of thirty five features and dozens more two-reelers, many of them westerns, when he lobbied William Fox to helm The Iron Horse (1924). The story of the construction of the transcontinental railway was mounted by Fox in response to Paramount's hit film The Covered Wagon (1923), a sweeping western drama of the hardships of the pioneers in the early wagon trains. Neither Ford nor Fox, however, had anticipated that it would grow into such a massive production. "We had to spend more and more money and eventually the simple little story came out as a so-called 'epic,' the biggest picture that Fox had ever made," remembered Ford to Peter Bogdanovich in his interview book John Ford. "Of course, if they had known what was going to happen, they never would have let us make it."
According to Ford and others, the company embarked on the production -initially scheduled for a four-week shoot- with little more than a synopsis. The epic canvas was built, rather flimsily, on the romantic story of Davy Brandon, a young boy who leaves his childhood sweetheart and heads west with his "dreamer" of a father, who is murdered and scalped by a "two-fingered Indian." That half-breed villain turns up years later, of course, when Davy, now a strapping, buckskin-clad frontiersman and scout, meets up with the westbound railroad crew and discovers his sweetheart, Miriam (Madge Bellamy), is accompanying the crew with her father (Will Walling) and her engineer fiance (Cyril Chadwick), a prissy, easily corrupted eastern fellow. To show his disdain, Ford has no less a personage than President Abraham Lincoln (played by real-life judge Charles Edward Bull, obviously cast for his uncanny resemblance) snub this dandy and fondly recall Davy. Other historical figures woven through the story include Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok.
For the leading role of Davy Brandon, Ford cast an unknown. George O'Brien had been a stuntman, extra, and camera assistant when Ford, impressed by his screen tests and his pluck, cast him over the studio's reservations. It made O'Brien a western star and his subsequent career included many more Ford films as well as the lead in F.W. Murnau's masterpiece Sunrise (1927).
Following the example of The Covered Wagon, Fox sent Ford and his crew to shoot the film on location in Mexico (for the cattle drive scenes) and then on to New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. According to biographer Scott Eyman in his book Print the Legend: "To make a story about pioneers, Ford insisted that the crew and actors had to live like pioneers." Not that there was a lot of choice in the matter. Ford's locations, chosen for the wide open spaces and dramatic landscapes, were far from towns. Much of the company lived in the Pullman cars of a circus train rented for the production. Others lived inside the clapboard rooms of the frontier town sets. Hot water was provided by the locomotive's own boiler and they ate under the canvas of a circus tent. Not the most comfortable of conditions when shooting through a desert winter. The production battled snow constantly and the shooting day often began with the entire company shoveling and sweeping the snow off the streets of the sets. Ford had hired accordion player Danny Borzage (brother of director Frank) to play mood music during the shooting and he helped keep up the crew's spirits through the production. Ford kept him on his sets for forty years, to play both mood music and bit parts.
"Most of the picture was actually shot off the cuff," recalls propman and assistant Lefty Hough. "It all came out of his mind, his imagination." With the film's canvas growing and the production fighting inhospitable weather and arduous conditions, the four week shoot stretched on and the budget rose. Ford claimed that producer Sol Wurtzel arrived on location to stop the filming but became so caught up in a marathon crap game that he never got around to shutting the production down, an unlikely story that has become part of the film's legend. To add to the authenticity, Ford brought in real Native Americans to play the Indians (they also doubled as Chinese laborers for a few shots) and hired local cowboys for the riding scenes and stunts.
The Iron Horse opens with a card that reads: "Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is the pictorial history of the building of the first American transcontinental railroad." Such proclamations are to be taken with a grain of salt, to be sure, and Ford is loose with his fidelity to history and fact. It's the atmosphere that Ford captures so beautifully, from the location shooting to the labor and process of clearing land and laying track. A title card proclaims that the locomotives in the re-creation of the driving of the Golden Spike are the original "Juniper" and "116" engines of the real-life event. Studio publicity also laid claim to using Bill Hickok's derringer and the original stagecoach used by newspaper legend Horace Greeley.
The film opened to rave reviews and became one of Fox's biggest hits of the silent era, earning over $2 million on a negative cost of $250,000. In a 1953 interview, Ford proclaimed The Iron Horse the favorite of his films. Being a notorious contrarian, it's impossible to verify his real feelings, but it was his most ambitious film to that time, both artistically and logistically, and his first major success.
John Ford's first American epic is not a birth of a nation, but its physical and symbolic unification in the wake of the Civil War. It is, in many ways, the birth of Ford's essential themes: the meeting of cultures (the Irish, the Italian, and in a rather token way, the Chinese laborers of the West Coast), the sprouting of civilization (at least as defined by the American settlers) in the wilderness, and the building of a community in a shared purpose. The frontier towns that spring up like desert weeds and pull up roots to follow the construction crews are pockets of both wild anarchy and native justice, and Ford's location shooting set the human drama against the magnificent Arizona landscape. The detail in the background was often as important as the drama in the foreground, from the lively business playing out in the boom-town saloons to the telegraph wires being strung up as the railway lines meet, completing the connection of the coasts.
For years, the only available version of The Iron Horse was the British cut, which was considered by most critics and historians as the inferior version. According to historian Tag Gallagher, Ford shot two negatives simultaneously (a common practice in the day), one for domestic prints and one for foreign. Apart from changes in text of the intertitles (including, in one instance, the renaming of a character), the British cut features fewer moving camera shots during outdoor action scenes and changes the rhythm of Ford's editing. The original American cut, with its editing intact, was restored in 2007 and showcased at the 2007 Venice Film Festival. (A scheduled New York Film Festival showing was cancelled due to "logistical problems.") A new orchestral score was commissioned by Christopher Caliendo for this restoration, which presents the silent classic as it was meant to be seen for the first time in decades.
Producer: John Ford
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon, John Russell, Charles Darnton
Cinematography: George Schneiderman
Music: John Lanchbery
Cast: George O'Brien (Davy Brandon), Madge Bellamy (Miriam Marsh), Charles Edward Bull (Abraham Lincoln), Cyril Chadwick (Peter Jesson), Will Walling (Thomas Marsh), Francis Powers (Sgt. Slattery).
by Sean Axmaker