Monday, September 17, 2012
The Iron Horse
John Ford's epic silent Western The Iron Horse was the director's first major statement in the genre that, more than any other, would become synonymous with his career. He'd made many Westerns before, churning out low-budget B-movie oaters throughout the silent era, but this was his first large-scale statement in the genre. His ambition seems obvious in the title cards that introduce the film, paying tribute to Ford's hero Abraham Lincoln and announcing that the film's chronicle of the construction of America's "first transcontinental railroad" would be "accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere." This isn't just a film, he seems to be announcing, it's history.
That's bunk, of course, and as history the film is utterly suspect from virtually the moment it begins. Typically of the Hollywood Western, this is a mythological, romanticized depiction of the westward expansion, one in which the white heroes must struggle against the odds, fending off Indian attacks and the cruel assaults of the elements in order to fulfill their destiny of pushing into the unpopulated wilds of the west. The film's tone towards the Native Americans who are actually in those lands is obvious in the way the title cards keep announcing how "inevitable" it is that the white man should take over the entire country. The Native Americans who resist this expansion, the film suggests, are merely standing in the way of destiny, which means they're destined to be crushed. How dare they oppose "the inevitable"? How dare they oppose progress?
The film's ahistorical steamrolling of the non-white is obvious throughout. The title cards casually announce at one point that "there is no white labor" for the building of the railroad, so "it is necessary to bring in Chinese for the task." There's no mention, of course, of the fact that the Chinese laborers were paid less than white counterparts, and despite the acknowledgment that most of the laborers were Chinese, most of the onscreen work actually shown within the film is performed by white Irish and Italians. The discriminatory laws that applied to the Chinese are made into a joke in a courtroom scene where Ford makes light of the fact that shooting a Chinaman is a lesser offense than shooting a white man. The mass killing of buffalo to feed the railway employees — one major source of Native American anger at the rail's invasion of their lands — is also glossed over.
Ahistorical and ideologically suspect as it is, The Iron Horse is also often a grand piece of entertainment. Its scope is truly epic, and Ford's images have a real grandeur to them, a feel for landscape and crowded scenes. The hard work of the railroad workers is viscerally felt, and there's a sense of realism in Ford's recreations of their struggles. Horses trudge through deep snows, pulling locomotives. Men hammer rhythmically at large spikes. One sequence documents the process by which the movable railroad towns settle in one place for a while before leaving it behind as a ghost town, always moving with the forward advance of the tracks. As the town moves, Ford shoots a wagon train running side-by-side with an actual train, the soon-to-be obsolete form of cross-country travel helping to build its own replacement.
The film is dominated by sequences like this, which focus on the big picture at the expense of individual characters. There is an individual story here, built around Davy Brandon (George O'Brien), a Pony Express rider whose father had dreamed of building a transcontinental railroad before being killed by Cheyenne, led by the sinister white outlaw Deroux (Fred Kohler). After a prologue in which Davy appears as a boy before his father's death, the character doesn't return as an adult until almost an hour into the film, confirming the dominance of large-scale historical storytelling over character-based drama. Davy's presence provides at least a hint of the usual Hollywood hero-centric drama, but the film is about historical processes and feats accomplished by groups and societies rather than individuals. Even Davy's romance with Miriam (Madge Bellamy), the childhood sweetheart he was separated from, is eventually paralleled with the building of the railroad. Only when the tracks are completed can their love be consummated, the two lovers coming together from opposite ends of the country at precisely the moment the tracks are joined.
At its best, the film's epic storytelling is very satisfying. There's a sense of scale here that's truly exhilarating, particularly in the inventively staged battle scenes — one Indian attack is staged with the shadows of the attackers projected onto the side of a train, while the climactic battle is all dust clouds and sweeping overhead shots that take in the whole battlefield. Ford similarly pulls back for a grand cattle cattle drive sequence, whereas the countless images of men at work on the rails are invariably captured in densely packed frames that emphasize the sweaty, choreographed simultaneity of their labors. Indeed, the film is at its best when it's abstract like this, since the usual Fordian diversions into ethnic comic relief are especially grating here, and the characters, mostly treated as cogs in a massive machine, aren't well-developed enough for the sporadic shifts to dramatic narrative.
What the film is really celebrating is the moment that the United States became truly united, when it began to take on something like its modern form — pushing further and further into the so-called "wild" lands populated by non-whites, slowly absorbing the entire expanse from east coast to west, linking it all via technology. It's no coincidence that Ford makes sure to note that, when the rails are finally connected in the middle of the country at the end of the film, the news is rapidly spread around the country via telegraph, instantaneously alerting people way back on the east coast to the news. The modern America is forming here. Within the course of the film, which spans years, the Pony Express and the wagon train are made largely obsolete by the telegraph and the locomotive. In the last shot, Ford has people posing for a photograph by the side of a train, a precursor of the cinema, which would be another of those world-shaking, transformative technological leaps forward. This is, after all, a film about technology more than anything else, about the way in which a country was built through a unique combination of rapid technological advances, hard work, and, buried in the film's subtext but rarely acknowledged, exploitation and genocide.