Judge Paul Pritchard's iron horse was put down due to rust.
"Poor dreamer, he's chasing a rainbow!"
With his first blockbuster, John Ford delivered a rousing celebration of the men and women who blazed a trail across the old west with 1924's The Iron Horse. Shot on location in Nevada with a cast of six thousand extras, this was a massive undertaking, but the result is a work that set the standard for others to follow.
Previously audiences outside of the United States, however, would have struggled to find a complete version of the film, with the international cut being the only version available on Region 2 DVD. That is until now. With its latest release, Eureka is providing both cuts of the film, offering a definitive package for this seminal work on The Iron Horse (Region 2).
Facts of the Case
The Iron Horse is the story of the first transcontinental railroad, and is primarily seen through the eyes of Davy Brandon (George O'Brien), the son of a surveyor who dreamt of building a railroad that bridged the East and West coasts of North America. From meetings with a pre-presidential Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull), to confrontations with corrupt landowners, The Iron Horse offers a tale of passion, revenge, and romance.
John Ford's The Iron Horse is set in the early days of the old west, and its release in 1924 came at a time when the days of the pioneers were being confined to history. Ford's romanticism of the period helped kick-start the Western's popularity in modern culture. It sets out many of the genre tropes that would become synonymous with his later work.
Much of the film was written on the fly, with Ford and his crew only taking a basic outline of the plot with them. The result, however, is not as scattershot as one would imagine. Thanks to some judicious editing, it delivers a perfectly cohesive story. Amongst the grit and toil of those who labor on the railroads, we see the beginnings of the modern America, as the white man begins his journey through the West, establishing himself and his beliefs on this vast land—much to the chagrin of the indigenous Indian tribes. Amongst the hard-fought battles for control of the terrain, we witness the coming together of nationalities—be they Irish, Italian, or Chinese—into a single society that is one of the defining characteristics of America and its people. We also see the American dream in its infancy, as opportunity favors the brave, and corruption begins to weasel its way in as greed rears its ugly head. The fledgling towns that begin to crop up alongside the railroad are seen to demand law and order, but as we see when a fight breaks out between two love rivals, the justice delivered is often of a barbaric nature.
If one were to argue that this isn't amongst the best the genre has to offer, it must still be acknowledged this is no mere incidental footnote in the history of cinema. What Ford achieved with The Iron Horse is far more important. It casts a shadow over the genre that is felt even to this day, with both a tone and structure that informs so many of those that followed it. Expansive shots define the picture, with Ford—even at such a young age—showing a remarkable mastery of his craft. Consider how new a medium film still was when Ford shot The Iron Horse, and one can only admire how his pioneering approach behind the camera reflects that of the men and women whose story he sets about recreating in front of it. A lengthy sequence where the Cheyenne launch an attack on the railroad still impresses, even by today's standards.
The length of The Iron Horse may initially be off-putting to some. At 150 minutes, that is understandable, especially for those with an aversion to silent movies, but this is a story with much to tell and many characters with whom to tell it. It spans decades and offers a real sense of progress. Truly, this is a film of some length, but crucially it has the depth to match. Ford's pacing also adds to the film's accessibility; beyond the journey of Davy Brandon, which acts as the main focus of the film, there are numerous characters on the periphery who are given sufficient screen to ensure the film is never lacking in incident. Deroux, the wealthy and corrupt landowner who is determined to have the railroad pass through his territory is an intriguing character, primarily because he is part Cheyenne, which adds an interesting angle to his villainy. Ford also peppers his film with humor, with several characters introduced solely to offer a comedic respite for the viewer. Sadly, as was all too common during this period, the Cheyenne are shown as an unwaveringly hostile force, and in many ways not much more than any other obstacle, much like the weather, that stands in the way of the completion of the railroad. The reasons for their opposition to the railroad are never brought into question, meaning the film is too simplistic in its depiction of them. This renders their conflict with the pioneers as an overly simplistic struggle between good and evil.
Despite Ford faltering with his depiction of the Cheyenne, it is impossible not to be caught up in the final act of The Iron Horse, which delivers a triumphant fanfare for those men who built the railroad that united the East and West coasts. Bombastic, yet not wholly unwarranted title cards commemorate the achievement that is then seen more solemnly as Davy finally realizes his father's dream, alone, in the film's most touching moment.
Upon completion of The Iron Horse, two prints of the movie were created, one for American audiences, and one for international markets. It has long been argued that the U.S. cut is the superior work, and not only due to the additional 17 minutes of footage it includes. Beyond whole scenes being omitted (plus an opening dedication), the international cut has numerous differences, with different (often inferior) takes being used. The U.S. cut, in general, has the camera much closer in on its subjects, while action sequences often use a lower vantage point, helping to create a more dramatic-looking picture. There are also changes to the names of characters. To document the differences in any further detail would be to summarize the film too much, as shot by shot comparisons are made. The important thing to stress is that the story remains the same, but the telling is far richer in the U.S. cut. Thankfully Eureka has included both cuts of the film, so that fans can decide for themselves which is the superior version.
The US cut features both a 2.0 and 5.1 soundtrack, featuring a score by Christopher Caliendo. A truncated version of the same score can also be heard on the international cut. Caliendo, who wrote the score in 2007, really captures the mood of the piece and his contribution to this package never feels out of place.
Considering the age of the film, it is little surprise that there is evident damage to the print. Taking that into account, the DVD transfer is impressive, with a 1.37:1 transfer that appears to be the same as used for the Region 1 Fox release, and in turn bests the previous BFI release on Region 2. Blacks are admittedly more charcoal, and the picture suffers from softness, but these are understandable faults that it is hard to criticize the DVD for, as they are inherent to the age and condition of the print.
Disc 2, which contains the international cut of the film, comes complete with a 20-minute documentary where Tag Gallagher offers an insight into Ford and his work. Also included is a commentary track, courtesy of film scholar Robert Birchard. The track is massively informative, providing details on the film and its historical accuracy. Since The Iron Horse is a silent movie, the commentary track never feels intrusive, and will perhaps become the preferred way for some to watch the film. The retail copy will also include a booklet containing vintage press and publicity materials.
Eureka should be applauded for such a quality release. Both cuts of the film are backed up by quality extras. This really is how classics deserve to be treated. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
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