Sunday 18 May 2008

The Iron Horse (1924)

John Ford's first silent epic, The Iron Horse set the stage for more than just Ford as a great film director. It dealt with the opening up of the west, bringing civilisation to the savages and introducing us to legends of the west. Lincoln is here, but so is Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. Our initial hero is Davy Brandon, who heads west with his son from Springfield, IL. Three months later they're in the Cheyenne mountains and Brandon is killed and scalped by a white man with a malformed hand pretending to be an Indian. Davy Brandon Jr survives and is rescued by trappers.

A few years later, in 1862, Congress authorises two railroads: the Union Pacific to go west and the Central Pacific to go east, between them spanning the continent from sea to sea. Lincoln signs the bill against opposition on the grounds that the money is needed for war. He sees it as something needed after the war is over, because he was there when Davy Brandon and his son set off and understood their dream. He was right too, because only a few years later after his assassination, the Union Pacific crews building the track are made up chiefly of surviving soldiers from both armies, the north and the south.

And on the story runs in dramatised documentary style, the title cards setting us up for the next stage, which then unfolds dramatically for us. There's plenty of dramatic scenes for us, with seemingly no end of Indian attacks, buffalo herds and natural obstacles. Even at such an epic scale, the film seems rushed, especially the first half. It's two hours and thirteen minutes long, but could easily have been twice or three times that. Given the length of the Abel Gance silent movies I've seen recently, a mere two hours seems like nothing.

In such a testosterone filled film, there has to be some female presence, and here it's Madge Bellamy playing Miriam Marsh, who was also there when Davy Brandon set off. Now she's the daughter of the chief engineer on the Union Pacific. There are plenty of women in Judge Heller's combined courtroom and saloon, nicknamed Hell on Wheels. Chief amongst them is Ruby, played by Gladys Hulette, who I've seen as far back as 1909 in the trick film Princess Nicotine. She doesn't look any older here, fifteen years later, and she's suitably talented to be used by unscrupulous landowners to block the railroad's progress in ways best suited to women.

Ruby gets the task of seducing Jesson, Miriam's fiance, just around the time that Miriam gets to meet up with her young Davy again, now a Pony Express rider. Given that the ruthless landowner in those parts just happens to be the fake Indian who killed Davy's dad, you can see where our grand finale is going to end up an hour or so later. Before we get there though, there's plenty more little touches to make the film memorable.

In fact that's probably the most memorable thing about it. We don't see enough of each of the characters to care hugely for them, and the epic scope dwarfs the story. While the macro scale is memorable mostly because of its sheer size, the micro scale gives us human touches: the towns that flourish overnight then disappear as the Union Pacific headquarters shifts on a ways, burying the dead after the last night before moving, quick marriages on board mobile courtroom saloons that need annulling at the next stop, tough soldiers cum track layers who are scared of the dentist, a bartender taking down the mirror behind the bar when they know a fight is coming, the barroom fight itself where we rarely get to see the actual combatants.

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