It's a story that characteristically combines the grand with the intimate, through a celebration of the coming of progress. The Iron Horse's narrative covers such issues as the Civil War, Lincoln's presidency, the Indian wars, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, ethnic relationships, cattle trailing and railway history in a span of little over two hours, all with an absence of narrative strain still impressive today. Ford's skill in marshalling many disparate elements into one large canvas, successfully orchestrating history (proudly announced here as 'accurate stand faithful in every particular') is one example why he was such an exemplary Western director.
George O'Brien plays Davy Brandon, whose father dreams of rails eventually crossing the continent. After setting out for the west, Brandon senior is killed by the evil Two Fingers (Fred Kohler). Years later Davy sets to work for Union Pacific, scouting for a short cut through Cheyenne territory that will ensure the success of the transcontinental link up. Aiming to prevent this are the dastardly forces of corrupt surveyor Jesson (Peter Chadwick) and half-breed Baumann (Kohler). Meanwhile, Davy discovers his childhood sweetheart Miriam (Madge Bellamy) is engaged to the disreputable Jesson. The rest, as they say, is history.
Throughout Ford's career he was wont to use symbols to indicate the coming of progress in the West. In My Darling Clementine (1946) it was the social dance at the unfinished church. In Liberty Valance (1964) the desert flowers on Tom Doniphon's (Wayne's) coffin. The Iron Horse is dedicated to George Stevenson and, not unexpectedly, here it is the railway itself that represents the growth of civilisation. Its ultimate success as an enterprise is less that of a profitable commercial venture than of beneficial ideal, as visualised by President Lincoln.
Amidst the idealism of railway expansion, Ford includes the broad comedy common to many of his films - the Irish and Italian labourers continuing a friendly rivalry. Their work songs, spelt out in caption cards while they construct the track, punctuate the action, creating convenient breathing spaces between more dramatic scenes. The 'three musketeers' - as Slattery (Francis Powers) Casey (Farrell Macdonald) and Schultz (Jim Welch) are called - have their own amusing scenes based around some frontier dentistry. But essentially they function as a kind of comic chorus their earthy, ethnic, interjections keeping the film's idealism down to earth. There's an element of this too in Judge Haller (James Marcus), a sort of Roy Bean character, whose dispensation of frontier justice is as arbitrary as it is often inspired.
Least convincing to the modern viewer is the character of Miriam, whose simpering virginity comes closest to the two-dimensional women found often in the world of D.W. Griffith's melodramas. Her condemnation of the clean living Davy's visit to the saloon, immediately after being with her (where, ironically, he has gone to patch things up with Jesson) seems almost wilfully annoying, ludicrous even, given the rough environment in which she finds herself. But that her heart belongs to the muscular scout is never in doubt, a fact made clear by their rapport in the opening scenes set in their childhood. In addition, once she has gained womanhood, her pending relationship with Jesson is condemned by implication as President Lincoln looks askance at their match. The same dramatic shorthand is employed through the palpable tension when Davy and Baumann first meet, an impending confrontation telegraphed as sharply as any message sent by mechanical means.
There is also a psychological antipathy between Davy and Jesson, notably in the great barroom scene. In these moments O'Brien plays well, almost making one forget Ford's great films with Wayne to come. But by necessity this is principally a film of the great outdoors, where Ford excels in portraying man battling against external obstacles, rather than internal stress. In Stagecoach (1938), which revitalised the genre, it would be a different story, one of comparative intimacy. Here, the heroes and villains who react together along the railroad work out their differences in the open air, with grand gestures, fisticuffs and work songs rather than anguished conversation. And it is these great scenes that remain in the mind when the film is done. The attack of the Indians on the supply train, their furious shadows thrown against the sides of the carriages; the snow swept work camps; the many panoramas of frontier life; Davy and Bauman's final conflict in the sleeper 'house'; the final meeting at Promontory Point for the 'wedding of the rails' and so on. Such visual grandness does not preclude economy however. One only has to think of hurriedly arranged burial of 'the old soak' and the marriage held at North Platte, or the establishing scenes at the beginning of the film, to see how Ford was fully in command of his material, switching scale and focus with ease.
With the joining of the two railroads and the closing of the bond between Miriam and Davy, there is a natural conclusion to both the human and the mechanical elements of the story - Davy actually waits until the final spike has been driven home before committing himself to her side. Fritz Lang was to acknowledge a debt to Ford's classic in his Western Union (1938), which has a related story, but his film is the slighter of the two and less innocent. Ford's epic remains the definitive telling of these particular events and its authenticity can still be recommended today.
The BFI DVD features the restored Gill and Brownlow tinted print of the film, and includes scene access and biographies, with a fine score by John Lanchberry.