August 28, 1924 [The Iron Horse]

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a Jack Ford picture [Just Pals, 1920], but, while it seems his shoulders have broadened considerably--in its (literally racing) ambition to visualize History as a personal as well as social-political narrative, The Iron Horse puts me in mind of The Birth of a Nation--he is still fond of the smaller details: Already full to the brim--recounting the building of the first transcontinental railroad--the picture is crowded with characters, from our hero-surveyor-Pony-Express-Rider to Cheyenne enemies and Pawnee allies, from saloon gals to Presidents, from frontier figures like Wild Bill Hickcock and "Buffalo" Bill Cody to the Chinese, Italian and especially Irish laborers who laid the tracks (“Dig, ye terriers, dig!” the work-song rises--or “Dig, ye Chinymen, dig!” depending on which half of the line you’re on). Ford’s Irishmen are an extravagant lot, prone to every typical vice and virtue popular entertainment has bestowed on them--as well as a tenacious nationalism, eager to build the “Empire of the West.”

And this Empire has a solidity that rings like sledgehammers, coursing over the Plains, into the mountains, leveling rock--and anyone in their way. The Cheyenne are depicted as a bloodthirsty lot, determined to disrupt the Empire. And within the Empire greed threatens--not as an abstract vice, but embodied by maimed and venal individuals. The fighting is fierce, the moral imperatives solid. It is difficult for one’s heart not to soar as the lines meet at Promontory Point--my finer sensibilities dutifully withdrew as I saw the Golden Spike driven, bloody hands clasped discreetly behind the back as the photograph memorialized the moment.

I will not ruin Ford’s grand picture with those hands--as much as I can feel them behind my own back--happy that the West is so easily approached, grateful for every “terrier” and “Chinyman” who spit on his own hands and dug in. I am willing to love this movie for its optimism and humor, its attempts to make the effort inclusive--even the recalcitrant Italian workers join in to work and fight for the line, along with the women, shopkeepers--and yes, brave surveyors; and this willingness of mine is granted if only because Ford knows how to build a scene--the final hand-to-hand showdown between hero and villain occurs beneath an archway of railroad ties, while the Indian battle rages--again, personal and public history worked out simultaneously--and more: He builds a picture that asks me to suspend judgment--and yes, disbelief--and to be swept along by his boundless energies.

I’m not particularly drawn to Western pictures, but Ford is an insistent film-maker; every scene in this movie is propelled, like the train and Indians that rush at the camera, which hides low in a hole as they thunder over. And while I partially regret my acquiescence to his flaws--moral, factual, and other--as usual I succumb to spectacle, and the promise that the next picture will be--What? Better? Or simply something else--or at least more, whatever that might mean? Oh, to hell with second thoughts: The thick hide of the movie fan, like a terrier driving spikes, is never to be underestimated.


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