Melodrama, Indian attacks, worker strike, beautiful girl, Hell on Wheels, evil landowner, more villains and bad guys, handsome pony express rider, renegade white man, old time dentistry, Chinese workers, fights, and battles.
The Iron Horse is a silent movie made in 1924 to commemorate the building of the transcontinental railroad. It was deemed by the Library of Congress to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and was placed on the National Film Registry. It was the biggest hit of the Silent Era, the top grossing film in 1924, and was John Ford's fiftieth film and his favorite. It was also Ford's first serious western as opposed to his previous "shoot 'me up's." It was also filmed on location and some of the film's locations were in Truckee and the Sierra.
It’s a classic melodrama that lasts a couple of hours. The railroad is building the transcontinental across the country. In Wyoming the big landowner and big evil-doer, who only has two fingers and a very evil demeanor, wants the route to go through his property. The hero has all his fingers and is handsome and broad chested. He knows there is a shorter route that will not be bothered by Indians. He knows because his father showed it to him just before he was murdered by a band of Indians led by a renegade white with two fingers.
The bad guy has an assistant bad guy who is engaged to the beautiful girl. He and a Pony Express riding hero go out to check out the shorter route. There is attempted murder. The route aims for the two fingered bad guy’s land. The pony express rider reappears. There is a fight, another fight, the two fingered guy is exposed…..
It’s a fun movie from the silent days with classic melodrama elements and is a 1920’s version of a western.
The reason I was watching it was because there are some scenes relevant to Donner Summit. In one scene there are Chinese drillers drilling just as they did in the old days – two guys using sledges while a third rotates the bit. There is a large tunnel with lots of Chinese workers. Finally, they re-enacted hauling a locomotive over Donner Summit so they could continue the building on the other side while Tunnel 6 was being completed. It may or may not be done in the way it was originally.
In The War, The West and The Wilderness, the author Kevin Brownlow says in an article about The Iron Horse, “Publicity for the film described how this was done exactly as it had been done originally – with two hundred and fifty Chinese labourers and fifty head of horses. The Chinese were retired railroad workers who, despite their advanced age, said the publicity, heaved the locomotive across the snow. Disaster almost struck when half-inch cables began snapping, but everyone stayed at his post. In reality, the locomotive had stubbornly refused to move and Ford had tried dollying the camera past the engine."
Certainly the locomotives were not hauled over assembled as shown in the movie, but rather in shipping crates and were assembled in Truckee. Still that was a massive feat which was done three times for three locomotives, 80 miles of track, various bits of iron needed to lay track, and railroad car parts.
In reality the movie crew tried hauling a locomotive but gave up after a few hundred yards and they were hauling a smaller version than what the guys in the old days had to haul. People were tougher in the old days.
The video is available on line in multiple places both to view and for sale. Be sure to pick up the American version which is a little longer and better quality than the international version.