30 Great Westerns
The Iron Horse

John Ford directing Iron Eyes Cody in The Iron Horse.

After the success of Paramount's The Covered Wagon, Fox studio was eager to meet the challenge with their own epic-scale Western. They turned to director John Ford. At this early point in his career, Ford had already directed dozens of short Westerns, mostly two and three reelers, many starring Harry Carey. He wasn't yet acknowledged as one of the master filmmakers. That wouldn't happen until the '30s.

Many of Ford's early films are now lost. But film historian William K. Everson reported that Ford's Straight Shooting (filmed in 1917, when Ford was just 22 years old) gives evidence of Ford's talent for photographic composition.

Entrusted with the largest budget of his then-young career, Ford responded by creating an epic-scale Western that manages to outdo The Covered Wagon in terms of grandeur. The main story of The Iron Horse (1924) involves the building of a transcontinental railroad and culminates in a reenactment of the famous union of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railways at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869. However, The Iron Horse also involves a cattle drive, an Indian attack, a saloon brawl, and the Pony Express. In addition, Wild Bill Hickcok, Buffalo Bill, and Abe Lincoln make appearances. The basic situation is filled with suspense as the railroad workers hammer spikes into rails and lay down the iron rails, struggling to be the first to complete their stretch of railroad tracks.

George O'Brien plays the hero, Davy Brandon. After his father is killed by a tribe of Indians led by a white man, Brandon strives to realize his father's dream of building a transcontinental railroad. Meanwhile, Davy attempts to woo his childhood sweetheart, Miriam (Madge Bellamy), only to discover that she is already married--and her husband, Peter Jesson (Cyril Chadwick), is the same man who murdered Davy's father. So Davy must reveal Peter Jesson's true nature, win Miriam's heart, and help complete the transcontinental railroad!

The Iron Horse contains many of the themes that Ford would explore in his sound-era Westerns. One of the main themes centers upon the men who sacrificed their lives in order to help bring civilization to the wilderness. Ford would return to this theme throughout his career, as in My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Ford shot most of the film in Arizona, where a good-sized town was built in order to support the movie's huge cast and crew (over 6,000 people altogether). A train of 56 coaches was required to transport the production to the site. The resulting movie is one of the great silent epics. However, the drama isn't overshadowed by the weight of the movie's historical importance. In The Hollywood Western, William K. Everson wrote, "The Iron Horse is big and sprawling, but unlike so many historical super Westerns it doesn't allow itself to slow down into stiff sprawling tableaux."

Star George O'Brien was virtually unknown when John Ford cast him in The Iron Horse. O'Brien would become a major star of the silent era, also starring in Ford's Three Bad Men (1926) and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927). However, in the sound era, O'Brien was strictly a Western star. Ford remembered O'Brien when he made his cavalry trilogy and gave O'Brien small roles in both Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

--by Gary Johnson