With seven years of Western shorts & features to his credit (nearly all lost), John Ford was well prepped for his career breakthrough when FOX countered Paramount’s big hit THE COVERED WAGON/’23 with their own taming-the-prairie epic. Fittingly, while the slightly stiff, but handsome WAGON documented the horse-drawn pioneers, IRON HORSE celebrates their rapid displacement by track & steam locomotion. Thrillingly shot in near wilderness conditions, often off-script, with some jaw-dropping stunt work and untested lead George O’Brien giving a wonderfully open perf, Ford seems to hold the whole long-form story in his head & hand. While hardly faultless, there’s already a bit too much comic relief & the more heavily scripted first half has its corny aspects, the second half proves magnificent from any angle. Filled with surprises, too, like waiting an hour to bring in the leading man, holding still while a loyal dog grieves for his Indian master, orchestrating a climax that has a herd of cattle & a unit of Pawnee Indians riding to the rescue instead of the Calvary. Unfazed by the film’s unconventional structure (three reels to go after the battle climax), Ford finds the film’s emotional pulse and gives us his first masterpiece.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The superb DVD from FOX comes in two flavors. The US cut runs nearly two reels longer (worth every minute), while the International Release has the smoother print. (Both use a memorable new score from Christopher Caliendo.) Ford specialists opt for the US cut, not so much for length as for its better shot positioning (where different) & ‘takes.’ Generally, two (or even three) cameras would grind in tandem for the various Stateside & world markets, but the situation seems a little more complicated on this one. Silent pic newbies may prefer the easier-on-the-eye gloss of the Euro-cut; celluloid junkies with a bit of tolerance for grain & striation should opt for the sharp edges of the more complete US release.
DOUBLE-BILL: Ford’s next silent Western, again with George O’Brien, was 3 BAD MEN/’26. It takes its time setting things up & gaining story traction, but builds & builds to a magnificent third act that really pays off. After that, Ford dropped the genre for 13 years & 33 films before bringing the Grade-A Western (and John Wayne) back with STAGECOACH/’39.