The Iron Horse; or the Ever-Popular Drunken Irishman Effect
The criticism of The Iron Horse that one hears most often is that the lead protagonists, and the story line relating to them, are banal. I wouldn't want to argue otherwise. The young hero, played by George O'Brien, is likable enough, not characterized too deeply. But his narrative task is to foil a bunch of mustache-twirling villains who not only want to ruin the transcontinental railroad project, but also killed the boy's father years before. Somehow this high concept gets muddled up with the boy's romance with the daughter (Madge Bellamy) of the railroad owner, so that she breaks off with her beau for defending himself against the bad guys.
But this personal story isn't the real point of the movie, as the most casual viewer will intuit. Ford principally intends to celebrate the transcontinental railroad, which offers him the potent symbolism of starting from both ends of the continent and making connection in the American desert. The boy's father was an idealist who dreamed of the project long before it was undertaken; when the boy and girl split up, they find themselves on opposite railroad teams, converging geographically and emotionally as the railroad is completed.
The work of building the railroad takes up much of the running time of The Iron Horse, and the multi-ethnic nature of the real-life railroad workers gives Ford an opportunity to fill out the film with a supporting cast of garrulous, hard-drinking, aging Irishmen who adopt the young hero and are utterly invested in the great national enterprise. (One of the most visible of the old coots is actually a German; but a Gaelic tone prevails nonetheless.) As Ford's drunken-Irish comic relief is often regretted even by his fervent admirers, this story strategy may not register immediately as a virtue. Nonetheless, it's here that the Fordian spirit enters the movie. I'll mention three functions that the drunken Irishmen serve, and I certainly think that all three are important parts of the Ford experience.
1) They greatly enhance the connection between the personal and the national narratives. The connection between the film's protagonists and the American saga is necessarily very partial: not only because the protagonists' story is kind of dumb, but also because personal stories usually take on universal connotations. But the teeming cast of supporting characters, not much burdened with personal trajectories, is strongly associated with the transcontinental enterprise; and these "environmental" characters exert a strong influence on the story, pulling the young protagonist into their midst and blurring the lines between foreground and background story.
2) They are the occasion for a lot of behavioral "business." Watching a lot of early Ford films at once makes one aware of an aspect of his direction that is easy to overlook: he is both quite resourceful at creating little distinctive actions and gestures, and determined to allot a good deal of screen time to this practice. In the silent era, when filmmakers were obligated to expend 90% of their energy just to tell their stories in visual terms, the profusion of character-based business in The Iron Horse really makes the film stand out from less ambitious productions. Interestingly, the inventive comic-relief routines that Ford fans sometimes consider a defect, and which are very little changed from 1924 to 1966, probably create more of a challenge to our taste when juxtaposed with Ford's majestic post-World War II style.
3) They provide opportunities for Fordian transcendence. Surely one of the coups that we most associate with Ford are those moments of duress when characters discard their quirks and peccadillos and fall into a serene, imperturbable oneness with their mission or their group identity. Here is where The Iron Horse proves itself worthy of comparison with Ford's great films, and the moments in question all belong to the secondary characters. During the Indian attack on the railroad camp, one of the trio of grizzled track-layers who lead the comic-relief brigade takes an arrow in the back. As the seemingly doomed defense of the camp continues, the wounded man lies stoically beneath a railroad car, his friends fighting on either side; at one point Ford shows the man smoking his pipe tranquilly, staring into space. The residents of the nearby company town who rush to the camp's aid include a saloon girl (Gladys Hulette, my favorite actor in the film) who is injured by a gunshot; after the battle is over, Ford composes a beautiful shot of the fallen woman on a moving open railroad car, a circle of her female friends hovering around her, other survivors of the battle perched at the end of the car in the background of the shot.
When one thinks about it, the "foreground" stories in Ford's best films are almost always woven into the texture of the society behind them, and through that link into a social and historical setting. Rarely do his protagonists carry movies by the force of their personal drama alone, even when those dramas are less dorky than the one in The Iron Horse. Maybe we should think twice before we wish for Ford movies purged of low comedy. Personally, I rather like a lot of that rowdy Fordian humor.