John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) is one of those legendary movies that’s frankly of more interest on a historical basis than as entertainment. Even in its international version (the one being screened), the film clocks in at a sometimes-ponderous 133 minutes that can be fairly tough sledding. As history, however—and especially as a major part of the history of Ford’s work—the film is invaluable and fascinating. It details the building of the railroad that connected both sides of America—climaxing with the joining of the east and the west with (of course) the driving in of the golden spike—complete with using the real locomotives from the actual event. In other words, it was—and is—the stuff of which epics are made. It also offered the raw material for the stuff of which John Ford films are made.
As an early look at Ford, The Iron Horse is surprising by virtue of how much of Ford’s mature work is already in evidence. The use of panoramic vistas and the unerring compositional eye is already there. Unfortunately, so is Ford’s penchant for tiresome Irish knockabout comedy and even loading down the proceedings with folk songs. (Of course, this being a silent film, the Sons of the Pioneers are blessedly absent.) Strangely, in other respects, the film is pure American silent cinema with the usual nailed-down camera. What makes this particularly hard to understand is the fact that Ford thinks nothing of attaching his camera to the trains themselves, meaning that there are several spectacular uses of moving camera in that capacity. Yet it never seems to have occurred to him—or anyone else—to use the camera to simply follow the action, making aspects of the film feel like missed opportunities. Certainly worth a look as history, but be prepared for some slow patches.