The Iron Horse

(1924) director John Ford
viewed: 07/15/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

One of my favorite things is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a now 4 day event showing any number and variety of silent films.  I’ve been attending now for a few years and was excited to go to the opening night showing of John Ford’s epic silent Western, The Iron Horse.  I’d never seen it before, but it seemed a great film to check out, an early epic Western by the film director most associated with the genre.

The film retells the tale of the building of the transcontinental railroad, a crowning event in American history, and a fascinating and meaningful story.  Of course, it’s told through the story of the son of a “dreamer” who, while a neighbor of Abraham Lincoln’s, pondered the possibilities of a railroad that connected America’s East with the American West.  But it’s his son who works the railroad, helps to find the passage through a tough area, not to mention some conniving villains which all add this up to a much more traditional “oater” as the writers of crossword puzzles like to call Westerns.

What is fascinating is that the two trains that meet at Promontory Summit the where the “golden spike” was driven in are the two actual locomotives that were at the real event.  Ford has much dedication to this narrative and sought to make it as true to life and accurate as possible from an historical standpoint.  Additionally, according to some of the notes, some of the Chinese workers on the film also participated in the building of the railroad.  But I have to wonder, since the railroad was completed in 1869 and this film was made in 1924, one has to wonder about the potential accuracy of such a statement.  (I also have read that the story about the locomotives being the actual engines is also potential hooey.)

It’s a rather rip-roaring yarn, though, and quite a bit of fun.  One other aspect that is quite interesting is the dedication Ford puts into showing the diversity of the work effort.  Irish, Italians, Chinese, and even the good natured Pawnee indians are on the side of good, and he likes to show the combatative members of each various group of national origin working alongside each other.   A strong melting pot message.  Of course the Cheyenne are the baddies, though the two-fingered main bad guy is supposed to be a white man who poses as an indian.

What’s additionally interesting is the whole of the Western genre, what will continue to be a popular genre through the better part of the 20th century, was already going through its ups and downs.  The festival offers an insightful booklet on the films, plus a slide show of images and facts prior to each film, plus an introduction by experts or notables on each film.  I tell you, it’s a great way to see these movies.  I keep telling people about them and I really think they’d enjoy getting to see these films on the big screen with full musical accompaniment.

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