This is the first in a series of articles about older films that, while they may not be the greatest, have touched the author most profoundly on a personal level. In doing so, the writer believes, they express an “invulnerable relevance,” far more immediate than films closer to us in time, making them more than worthy of revisiting. Here, the film is John Ford’s “The Iron Horse” (1924). It is embedded at the end of this article.
I have not lived in the United States for more than a decade, but long before I left it, I understood that the America I loved no longer existed. It is fashionable to say of that America: It never existed. It was only ever a nostalgic dream. A myth. It was the printing of the legend.
I do not believe this is true. I believe that America did exist. It was indeed real. And Americans lived it. It was an America that sincerely believed and actually was involved in an epic, world-historical enterprise; an enterprise that sought to construct and expand an empire of liberty; and this liberty was indeed real. It was a moment in time when, as George Orwell once put it, men genuinely felt and genuinely were free.
Orwell was speaking of the world chronicled by Mark Twain, but I believe it encompassed more than that: The America of the Revolution, the Civil War, and the great voyage into the West. It began to end with the closing of the West and the rise of the vast industrial empire that Orson Welles depicted in “The Magnificent Ambersons” as a town that “spread and darkened into a city.” That America existed. But it no longer exists. It is buried now beneath cars and highways and strip-malls and urban decay. It is ancient, archeological, waiting for rediscovery.
That was the America of John Ford. America’s most honored and perhaps greatest filmmaker, Ford remains twentieth-century America’s only national bard, its only epic poet. Like Walt Whitman, he used the century’s quintessential art form to become the Homer of his age.
From American Great to Reactionary Film Maker
Ford is now distinctly unfashionable, seen as retrograde, reactionary (ironic, given his strongly liberal politics), reprehensibly macho; and, with the slow death of the Western, increasingly irrelevant. Yet the sheer quantity of his masterpieces is staggering: “The Informer,” “Stagecoach,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “My Darling Clementine,” “The Quiet Man,” “The Searchers,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”… Even many of his secondary works, like “The Long Voyage Home,” would be the envy of any modern director. Yet his greatest film, the most Homeric of all American films, the quintessence of Ford’s homage to the America that was once and will not be again, was his first great film: “The Iron Horse.”
Made at the height of the silent era, “The Iron Horse” is an epic whose scope and ambition Ford would never attempt again. Appropriately, it depicts—indeed recreates—America’s first great continental endeavor: The building of the transcontinental railroad. At the same time, it counters this epic of a nation with an epic of the individual: There are historical figures as large as Abraham Lincoln, and as small as the pioneers who blazed the trails into the West and the immigrant workers who physically etched the great railroad into the stone of the continent, as well as the Indians who fought a desperate battle against them.
It counters these with its fictional young hero who finds himself orphaned in the great wilderness and thus comes to personify the entire landscape of the ancient West, wandering from the Pony Express to the legendaria of the gunfighter to the vengeful child who finally seeks out the villain who murdered his father and reunites with the love of his life. Then, finally, he becomes the man who stands at the meeting point of the two great railroads, witnessing the realization of America’s and his own father’s dream. As such, it is a film of the vastest size and the most intimate frailty. It is awesome, torrential, and perhaps the most vivid retelling of the old, epic America in cinema. It is, as Woodrow Wilson once reportedly said, “history written with lightning.”
No other film has ever achieved this perfect synthesis of vast scope and intimate emotion. This may be because it was only possible before the coming of sound. Using the silent film’s ability to leap between images, using only short titles rather than lengthy dialogue to explain itself, The Iron Horse encapsulates time and character with a speed and concision impossible in the sound film. A pioneer dreaming of a railroad spanning the vast continent can jump to President Lincoln approving it to a bar fight between drunken workers to the furious efforts of Chinese laborers to the machinations of corrupted landowners to officials constantly revising their plans to somehow conquer an unforgiving continent. It is all seamless, organic, and awe-inspiring.
John Ford, Like that America, Is Not Yet Lost Forever
Ford would attempt such things again and again over his 50-year career, but he never realized them as perfectly as he did the first time. Indeed, like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger,” “The Iron Horse” shocks the viewer because it is all there. Everything that would comes to define Ford’s work is fully formed: The sense of a mythic past; the transcendent beauty of and desperate battle against an unfeeling wilderness; the constant skirting of the edge of sentimentality, until a pure innocence of which any other director would be incapable is achieved; the affectionate depiction of the easy camaraderie and comic buffoonery of male friendship (including the drunken but noble Irishman that Ford’s stock actor Victor McLaglan would later play to perfection again and again); the furious, impossibly kinetic energy of its action scenes, including an Indian attack that anticipates the titanic climax of Stagecoach; and the bittersweet romance between two young people pure of heart but separated by circumstance. These would never again be united so seamlessly into a single work.
And there is the one thing every Ford movie would contain with consistent perfection: In every Ford film, there is one moment that brings the entire film together into a moment of absolute simplicity and absolute emotion, encapsulating a vast work into a single scene: The young man kneels before the track that has finally linked the Union and Central Pacific railroads. He grips it and then brings his hands together, uniting the historical and the personal: The realization of his father’s once-broken dream and the dreams of a country once torn apart by civil war, the redemption and rebirth of a continental nation. Then he turns, and his childhood love, whom he believed lost to another man, steps into the frame. He looks at her. She looks at him. And the scene fades away. There is no embrace, no kiss, no expressions of love. But everything is embraced, a nation is embraced, cinema is embraced, we are all embraced. We are all loved. As in all things Ford, tears are not jerked from the viewer; they well up from the depths of their own accord.
Like such moments, like that ancient America, we have lost John Ford the man. But we have not lost John Ford the bard, the artist, the epic poet. We have not lost America’s Homer. But America has begun to ignore him. To turn away. To regret his presence. To become ashamed of his political incorrectness and oft-distorted image of chauvinistic sentimentalism. But America should not turn away. Because in Ford’s work is not only genius; but also empathy, love, beauty, and the great dream that those who dreamed it indeed lived. There is, in short, liberty—and with it, the more perfect union. Perhaps today’s America, crowded and contentious; torn by divisions political, racial, and economic; unsure of itself, its history, and its soul; should turn back to John Ford. Perhaps it needs him too much to let him go.