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Film / The Iron Horse

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The Iron Horse is a 1924 film directed by John Ford.

It is a story of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. The film opens with young Davy Brandon accompanying his father, a surveyor, on a trek to examine possible railroad routes. Right after the Brandons discover a pass through the mountains, Davy's father is murdered by a band of Cheyenne, led by a white man who is missing the last three fingers on his right hand.

Skip forward a couple of decades, and construction on the railroad is underway. David Brandon Sr.'s old friend, Thomas Marsh, is a contractor with the Union Pacific, and his daughter Miriam (Mae Marsh), Davy's childhood sweetheart, has come along. Miriam is engaged to Jesson, the railroad's chief engineer. Grown-up Davy is a Pony Express rider for the railroad. Unfortunately for the railroad, Jesson is in cahoots with Bauman, an unscrupulous land speculator who is trying to detour the railroad through some land that Bauman owns. Unfortunately for Davy, Bauman always keeps his right hand hidden...

Although The Western had been a popular genre dating back to The Great Train Robbery in 1903, this film, along with The Covered Wagon the year before, marked the evolution of the genre into epic drama. It was also the first big western for Ford, who would spend decades making many classics of the genre.


  • Artistic License – History: The Pony Express had been out of business for quite some time when construction began on the railroad. In fact, it only ran for a year and a half, as the operating expenses were too high for the Express to make a profit.
  • The Cavalry: A group of Pawnee that work for the railroad arrive in time to chase off the Cheyenne that are trying to wipe out Davy and the other workers.
  • Chinese Laborer: Briefly seen working for the Central Pacific, although most of the movie follows the Union Pacific railroad (the one that was coming west from Omaha).
  • Disconnected by Death: A telegraphic variant. A guy climbs a telegraph pole to tap out a message but is shot down by the Cheyenne. His message is decoded as "Indians attacked Train No. 8 near Clay send help to—".
  • Femme Fatale Spy: Ruby the dance hall girl (and implied hooker, because what else would she be doing there?) is tasked with seducing Jesson and getting him under Bauman's control. She doesn't have to try very hard.
  • Historical Domain Character: Abraham Lincoln signs the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. Buffalo Bill Cody is a scout and cattle-driver for the road. Wild Bill Hickok is a lawman in the mining camp. Grenville Dodge is a railroad executive.
  • Injun Country: The Great Plains, an untamed region where the railroad is vulnerable to attacks by the Cheyenne.
  • Manifest Destiny: A major theme of the film, as the railroad will link east and west.
    "He feels the momentum of a great nation pushing westward—he senses the inevitable."
  • Mood Whiplash: When the railroad camp packs up to move to Cheyenne, there is a lot of frenzied activity, including some last-minute gambling at an outdoor roulette table and an impromptu marriage performed by a self-appointed "judge" (really an innkeeper). Then a caption says "the price of the town's last night of orgy", and the next scene shows a grief-stricken woman weeping as two railroad workers dig a grave.
  • Railroading: Bauman really, really wants the railroad built over his land. He is prepared to kill anyone who finds the mountain pass that will allow the railroad to bypass his land.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Ruby, one of the prostitutes in the mobile railroad camp, takes up a rifle and helps defend the workers when Bauman and the Cheyenne attack. Naturally, she's shot and killed by Bauman.
  • Red Right Hand: Bauman the evil land speculator is missing the index, ring, and pinky fingers of his right hand.
  • Satellite Love Interest / Token Romance: Miriam does nothing and hardly affects the plot at all, and seems to be there for no other reason than to be a love interest for Brandon. If Madge Bellamy and her character had been written out of the movie the story would be almost exactly the same. (Ford would complain years later in interviews that the studio had forced him to give Bellamy more screen time, even demanding closeups that didn't match the rest of the scene. This is very noticeable when Bellamy seems to change outfits when in closeup during a conversation with Davy on the train.)
  • The Savage Indian: Somewhat subverted. The Indians are resisting something that represents a mortal threat to their way of life, while the principal villain is a white man manipulating the Cheyenne for his own ends. In the climactic battle, a Cheyenne is killed, and his dog trots over and nuzzles his master's corpse.
  • The Seven Western Plots: The movie chronicles the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, making it a railroad story.
  • A Sinister Clue: Once Bauman is shown shaking hands with his left while keeping his right hand jammed in his pocket, it isn't hard to figure out who he is.
  • Title Drop: "My brother, before many suns we shall stop the iron horse forever", says Bauman to a Cheyenne chief. (Actually, Bauman is just trying to force the railroad to re-route over land he owns.)
  • Time Skip: A couple decades pass between David Sr.'s murder and the construction of the railroad.
  • Vehicle Title. Iron horse is the Indians' name for the locomotive.