John Ford was thirty one years old and already a veteran of thirty five features and dozens more two-reelers, many of them westerns, when he lobbied William Fox to helm The Iron Horse (1924). The story of the construction of the transcontinental railway was mounted by Fox in response to Paramount’s hit film The Covered Wagon (1923), a sweeping western drama of the hardships of the pioneers in the early wagon trains.
Neither Ford nor Fox, however, had anticipated that it would grow into such a massive production. “We had to spend more and more money and eventually the simple little story came out as a so-called ‘epic,’ the biggest picture that Fox had ever made,” remembered Ford. “Of course, if they had known what was going to happen, they never would have let us make it.”
According to Ford and others, the company embarked on the production -initially scheduled for a four-week shoot- with little more than a synopsis. The epic canvas was built, rather flimsily, on the romantic story of Davy Brandon, a young boy who leaves his childhood sweetheart and heads west with his “dreamer” of a father, who is murdered and scalped by a “two-fingered Indian.” That half-breed villain turns up years later, of course, when Davy, now a strapping, buckskin-clad frontiersman and scout, meets up with the westbound railroad crew and discovers his sweetheart, Miriam (Madge Bellamy), is accompanying the crew with her father (Will Walling) and her engineer fiancée (Cyril Chadwick), a prissy, easily corrupted eastern fellow.
To show his disdain, Ford has no less a personage than President Abraham Lincoln (played by real-life judge Charles Edward Bull, obviously cast for his uncanny resemblance) snub this dandy and fondly recall Davy. Other historical figures woven through the story include Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok.
Among the extras used in the Central Pacific sequences were several Chinese actors. They were in fact retired Central Pacific Railroad employees who had helped build the first transcontinental railroad through the Sierras and came out to participate in the filming as a lark.
“Most of the picture was actually shot off the cuff,” recalls propman and assistant Lefty Hough. “It all came out of his mind, his imagination.” With the film’s canvas growing and the production fighting inhospitable weather and arduous conditions, the four week shoot stretched on and the budget rose. Ford claimed that producer Sol Wurtzel arrived on location to stop the filming but became so caught up in a marathon crap game that he never got around to shutting the production down, an unlikely story that has become part of the film’s legend.
The film opened to rave reviews and became one of Fox’s biggest hits of the silent era, earning over $2 million on a negative cost of $250,000. In a 1953 interview, Ford proclaimed The Iron Horse the favorite of his films. Being a notorious contrarian, it’s impossible to verify his real feelings, but it was his most ambitious film to that time, both artistically and logistically, and his first major success.
John Ford’s first American epic is not a birth of a nation, but its physical and symbolic unification in the wake of the Civil War, is in many ways, the birth of Ford’s essential themes: the meeting of cultures (the Irish, the Italian, and in a rather token way, the Chinese laborers of the West Coast), the sprouting of civilization (at least as defined by the American settlers) in the wilderness, and the building of a community in a shared purpose. The frontier towns that sprang up like desert weeds and pull up roots to follow the construction crews are pockets of both wild anarchy and native justice.
Ford’s location shooting set this human drama against the magnificent Arizona landscape. The detail in the background was often as important as the drama in the foreground, from the lively business playing out in the boom-town saloons to the telegraph wires being strung up as the railway lines meet, completing the connection of the coasts.
There is also an undercurrent running throughout The Iron Horse, and in almost every motion picture John Ford ever made: There is progress. There is also a price. What we pay to achieve our goals is often lost in the amber of time.