Iron Horse, The (1924)

Iron Horse, The (1924)

“I hear you’re hunting for a short cut through the hills.”

A man (James Gordon) dreams of building a transcontinental railroad across America, but is brutally murdered by the villainous Bauman (Fred Kohler). Gordon’s son (George O’Brien) carries out his late father’s wishes, while simultaneously trying to avenge his death.


  • Historical Drama
  • John Ford Films
  • Revenge
  • Silent Films
  • Trains and Subways

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while this “John Ford classic holds up better than James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon, the other major western epic of the silent era,” it “too seems very slow… and not particularly original.” He notes that it’s a “tribute to the visionaries who realized that such a crazy project” as building a transcontinental railroad “was essential to our country’s expansion west”, and that “like many future, better Ford westerns,” it’s about “the men who sacrificed their lives so those who followed in their paths could have an easier time.” Ultimately, the historical elements of this silent epic are far more compelling than its sappy central saga of romance and revenge. Indeed, the film’s greatest strength lies in its powerful imagery of laborers hard at work; shanty towns cropping up along the tracks; and the “final railroad spike [being] driven home.”

Redeeming Qualities:

  • A powerful reenactment of the building of America’s transcontinental railroad

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its historical relevance.


One thought on “Iron Horse, The (1924)

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history, its place in history, and for O’Brien’s performance.

    I knew I’d seen this before – and I always remembered liking it even if I never went back to it til now. Though 2 1/2 hours long, I don’t find it slow at all. But it is a large story – simply because the undertaking of the railroads was large – and very detailed. The film’s preface informs us that every aspect of the story is true. Yes, well…even if that can’t be swallowed completely, at least the bulk of the planning & building details rings true, and that’s enough for finding overall satisfaction. While watching, you will no doubt be a bit overwhelmed by how difficult a picture this must have been to make, esp. the sequences directly involving track-laying. You may also realize how easy it can be now to take all of that effort for granted.

    In a particularly memorable episode involving Abraham Lincoln (the only one with him, effectively played by Charles Edward Bull), the President is strongly urged to not sign an agreement for railroad building (because all available funds are said to be needed for war). But the President remarks that the country’s future as well as its present must be attended to. It’s rather bizarre to imagine what America might have been like had its parts not become inter-connected.

    Two years prior to starring in Ford’s ‘Three Bad Men’, O’Brien made this as his first film of real note. And what a note! This is what I would absolutely call “star quality”. And it’s odd, really: when you see O’Brien in photographs, he has a very quirky look. But…he also has the following: a killer smile that highlights his eyes, sculpted height/weight proportion that he moves well and athletically with, *and* acting ability. Not that this is great acting, but it’s completely natural and believable. (I’ve read that, in real life, he was a heck of a nice guy as well. …Nice.)

    Though I don’t find the love and revenge subplots “sappy”, I would definitely call them “standard”. (Although there’s nothing standard when the revenge plot wraps up with O’Brien and his nemesis ripping each other’s shirts off while pummeling each other – yowza! – ~but I digress.)

    This is an important American story, well told visually and otherwise in solid Ford fashion. ’nuff said.

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