Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

The years of 1922–1924 saw many changes in the life and career of Sean Feeney. After moving   to Fox studios, his career (and salary) blasted off, and his increasingly prestigious projects and reputation motivated a change in his screen credit from the adventurous and youthful-sounding "Jack Ford" to the totemically American "John Ford." A trip to his Irish homeland further cemented the cultural nostalgia and social politics that would dominate the rest of his life and career (he channeled funds to the IRA until the end of his days).

Fox, already reverent of Ford as one of their best directors, assigned him to direct a western treatment set among the construction of America's first transcontinental railway, and sent him on a location shoot uncommonly far from Los Angeles and the studio's influence.

Ford saw opportunity. Seven years earlier, he had used Universal's two-reel assignment of Straight Shooting to launch his feature career with a five-reel film. Now, the distance of the studio's hand allowed Ford to expand and improvise The Iron Horse into something like an epic.

"Something like" because, despite it's considerable sweep and two-and-a-half hour running time, The Iron Horse is far from the scale of, say, Birth of a Nation, or even Tumbleweeds. Ford's ever-increasing proficiency and sudden relevance — The Iron Horse was a massive hit — makes the film exciting both as a film and as a milestone in Ford's artistic development, albeit a problematic one.

The Iron Horse begins before the American civil war. David Brandon, a small-town surveyor and dreamer, strikes out with his son Davy to "reclaim that wilderness out there clean to California" by scouting a suitable route for a transcontinental railroad. They are waved off by fellow dreamer and soon-to-be president Abraham Lincoln, who himself sees the railroad as an inevitable path to the nation's glory.

Lincoln is a minor character of little importance to the story; he is a bookend, a historical myth, a symbol of progress and fortitude cast over the film. But this early scene predates his political importance and places him in a pre-war small town as a conspicuous arbiter of the future. Ford would continue to counterbalance Lincoln's historical myth against common-folk fictions in Prisoner of Shark Island, and then later against his recasting of that myth in Young Mr. Lincoln, and his appearance in The Iron Horse is the first surviving instance of the Lincoln character in a Ford film. It is also notable as a major early instance in Ford's handling of cultural history.  Lincoln's role introduces a dynamic meshing of time and period; he has no significant role in the story because it is literally not his time. He is a ghost of his future self. 

Such putting of hindsight to history is fundamental to the historical genre. Historical films are not actually about the period and events they purport to display; they are about the intervening history between that period and the film's creation. Effective period pieces understand that inherent anachronism and use it to their creative advantage, and it is vital that this quality be understood when approaching Ford's work.

In this case, that quality is leveraged to suit an imperialist intent. Intertitles in The Iron Horse frequently remind us that the onscreen toiling will lead to prosperity; the town of Cheyenne struggles now, but is “soon to become another Union Pacific metropolis." Not long after Lincoln’s first appearance, the narrative jumps forth to the civil war year of 1862, where the now-president pushes for the Pacific Railroad Act. He is again beset by doubters who ask that all resources be channeled to the war, to which Lincoln reiterates his vision for the country in peacetime. He is a seer of manifest destiny.

But as I said, Lincoln is present only to plant the film's ideological stake in the ground. Its hero is Davy, whose father is killed by a tribe of Indians who oppose any railroad. They are led by Peter Jesson, a white man in native disguise, who manipulates the Indians for political purposes. Just before he is murdered, the elder Brandon protests, "But you're a white man!"

The “white savage” was not an altogether uncommon villain in the western genre, and had perversely xenophobic politics. Such a character more easily permits the generic vision of native Americans as unsophisticated primitives; their threat to the white man’s invention and innovation, otherwise a mark of intelligence and power, is channeled only through the influence and organization of a white man, whose racial corruption makes a monstrous traitor of him. (See, for comparison, the Austin Stoneman character of Birth of a Nation, a film that Ford revered, as did most filmmakers of his time.)

Such an antagonist marks a clear display of Ford's undeveloped racial politics. Three decades later, Ford would take a decidedly more sympathetic view of miscegenation in The Searchers, most obviously in Martin Pawley’s mixed-race descent and Debbie Edward’s kidnapping. Perhaps we can even consider that film’s Comanche villain, Scar, as a reiteration of Jesson in a more morally complex context; that character has undergone substantial miscegenation willingly, and is played by a white actor, no less.

But the attitude towards the Indians is outright patriarchal; to characterize native opposition as shortsighted in light of the resultant displacement and natural devastation is hypocritical. Indeed, after the marauders have killed the older Brandon, and Davy has buried his father and weeps over his grave, nature has been devastated not by the white colonials, but by the Indians who deny their ambitions.

After Davy mourns his father’s murder (a moment of piss-poor performance by child actor Winston Miller that singlehandedly capsizes the scene’s chances of resonance), the film makes that jump forward to the Lincoln scenes of 1862, and then past the civil war and into the railroad’s arduous construction.

The film’s plot is pure generic fodder: Davy returns, an unrecognized Jesson plots the railroad's sabotage, and in time the former reveals and executes the latter. Ford handles this plot with his deftest mix of comedy, pathos, and action yet. However, the love plot with Davy and his reunited childhood crush Miriam Marsh (Madge Bellamy) are stolid and boring; perhaps Ford didn’t yet have the life experience to make innocent romance sparkle as he later would.

Otherwise, however, scenes of railroad towns and construction are lavishly detailed period reproductions, and feature consistently lovely imagery. As of this film, Ford had mastered his compositional style; subtly formed yet striking images that are both complex and evocative.

The near-final image of Davy standing over the finished tracks is an eloquent statement of pride and control, fully capturing the power and accomplishment of the railroad and the workers who made it, placing Davy ramrod straight as if he were the final spike in the rails, all against the vast landscape — as an adjacent title card puts it, “the buckle in the girdle of America.” It’s almost enough to make you forget the abuse and exploitation of labour that went into those tracks.

Scenes of work on the tracks recurrently show labourers singing the folk song “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill”, a classic instance of communal music in Ford, if a potentially anachronistic one — whether the song predated the Transcontinental Railroad is unclear. It is an unmistakably Fordian signature, reflective of both his Irish heritage and his precise choice of song. In Kathryn Kalinak’s book How the West Was Sung, Kalinak argues that these singing scenes, rhythmically edited and spliced with intertitles of the lyrics, forced the hand of any musicians accompanying the film, who could hardly contradict the song shown onscreen.(1) This diegetic insistence on particular songs permitted Ford greater control over how his film was scored. (He was by then no stranger to this technique; Bucking Broadway’s scene of weepy cowboys even shows the piano keys being played in close up.)

The film’s insistent optimism comes to a head in these scenes on the tracks, which preach tolerance and cooperation among races via assimilation: to help build the tracks as the Chinese did is valiant, to oppose them as the Indian antagonists do is ignorant and short-sighted. The vision of the railroad is the vision of the white man.

The film’s final tableau, which recreates the moment of A.J. Russell’s famous photograph of the Central Pacific engine “Jupiter” and Union Pacific No. 119, shows a meeting of more than tracks. By recreating the Russell composition and placing the photographer in the foreground, The Iron Horse indulges both the historical and modern point of view, and invites one to consider the greatness of the nation that developed during the interim. In due time, Ford’s optimism would dissipate, and his future works would show the country’s development in a state of flux. 

1. Kathryn Kalinak How the West Was Sung (University of California Press, 2007)


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