Film Score: Erno Rapee Cinematography: George Schneiderman
Starring: George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy, Will Walling and Gladys Hulette
Iron Horse draws on narrative techniques worked out by D.W. Griffith as early as Birth of a Nation, and of course became the template for westerns from Cimmaron to How the West was Won, most notably, that of working multiple smaller stories into the larger historical canvas. In this case the historical event is the construction of the trans-continental railroad.
The film stars George O’Brien, whose lengthy career in both silent and sound films included numerous westerns. But he could also be effective in straight dramatic roles as he was as the lead in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Madge Bellamy, who also had a long career extending into the mid forties, is the love interest. Jean Arthur has a small, un-credited role. But one fascinating bit of casting is that of George Waggner as Buffalo Bill Cody. Waggner, of course, would go on to become a fairly well-known producer and director, filling both roles on Universal’s The Wolf Man and directing dozens of television series in the fifties and sixties.
The story has the usual cast of characters, the lovers separated when the young boy goes off with his father to scout for passages through the mountains in the west. His girl, who grows up and gets engaged to her father’s engineer. The beginning of the picture is set in Springfield, Illinois, and features Charles Edward Bull as Abraham Lincoln--to whom the picture is dedicated--who eventually signs the bill that begins the railroad project. And of course there is the villain, a large landowner in Wyoming territory who wants the railroad built through his land (and who also has a powerful connection to the hero). In addition to the love story, Indian wars, and a cattle drive, there are deft moments of comedy as well.
Ford’s not big on moving camera shots, but his static set-ups are quite nice and convey a real flair for the dramatic. The tracking shots he does use, usually following men on horseback, are very well done for the time. To be sure, this is very much a silent film, and the pantomime acting is a style all its own, but there is a sense of realism in many scenes that is breathtaking. The title cards are beautifully done, with gorgeous paintings in the background that mirror the action on the screen. The DVD itself has two versions of the film, the U.S. release, and a slightly shortened European release. Both feature a new film score by Christopher Caliendo that is not quite symphonic enough for my taste, but is certainly better than a lot of public domain silent films with random music fused on. The Iron Horse is a great early western from Ford, and recommended highly for fans of silent film.