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The Iron Horse

Black and white, silent, 1924
Fox Film Company
Directed by John Ford
Runtime: 150 minutes

Starring: George O'Brien (Davy Brandon), Madge Bellamy (Miriam Marsh), Charles Edward Bull (Abraham Lincoln), Cyril Chadwick (Peter Jesson), Will Walling (Thomas Marsh), Francis Powers (Sgt. Slattery), J. Farrell MacDonald (Cpl. Casey), Jim Welch (Pvt. Schultz), George Waggner (Col. William F. 'Buffalo Bill' Cody), Fred Kohler (Deroux), James A. Marcus (Judge Haller), Gladys Hulette (Ruby)

The opening credits dedicate the film to Abraham Lincoln and to the men who built the transcontinental railroad.

The action opens in Springfield, Illinois, where Mr. Brandon, a surveyor, is daydreaming about a railroad that spans the coasts. His neighbor Thomas Marsh, a small contractor, expresses skepticism about his vision.

Their young children, Davy Brandon and Miriam Marsh, pretend to survey a pond in the snow. A clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln watches the children playing from the next yard. Lincoln then visits with the two fathers, and learns of Brandon's plans to head west to survey the land for his dream of a transcontinental railroad. Miriam tearfully waves goodbye to Davy as he and his father ride west.

Three months later--springtime in the Cheyenne Hills--Davy and his father make camp in a forest. They notice a large gorge--a likely path for the railroad to someday pass through.  As they sit down to eat, Davy's father hears footsteps approaching. He instructs Davy to hide, and stays to confront a group of ambushing Indians.  A white man in the group, dressed as an Indian and missing two fingers from his right hand, kills Brandon and scalps him in front of Davy.

Davy is left to bury his father. He is happened upon by 3 trappers, who take him away from the scene.

The story jumps ahead many years to June 1862. Congress has authorized construction on a transcontinental railroad.  The Union Pacific company will build west from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific company will build east from Sacramento, California.

Miriam (now a young woman) and her father (now a contractor for the Union Pacific) are present for the signing of the bill by President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, remembering them from Springfield, asks after Davy, but Miriam informs him that she is to be married to another man: her father's chief engineer, Mr. Jesson.

The film then begins to chronicle the difficult labors in building the transcontinental railroad, as well as the many different ethnic groups who participated in the task.  The workers are seen chiseling tunnels, moving engines through snow with teams of horses, working under difficult conditions, and fighting off attacks from hostile Indians. Ethnic tensions occasionally arise between workers. There is also difficulty bringing in payroll and supplies to keep work moving forward.

In his role at the Union Pacific, Thomas Marsh is charged with finding a shortcut through the Black Hills to help save labor, costs, and time. He asks Jesson to scout for a new route, something shorter than the Snake River area they originally planned to use. Deroux, the richest landowner in the area, owns the Snake River land. He sends one of his dance-hall girls to use her powers of persuasion to keep Jesson from finding a pass through the Hills.

Meanwhile, as Marsh makes an inspection of the track line, a Pony Express rider jumps aboard his train to avoid pursuit from hostile Indians. It becomes clear that the rider is Davy Brandon. He quickly learns Miriam is soon to marry Jesson, and upon meeting Deroux he uneasily recognizes his face, but cannot place him. It is Deroux who killed Mr. Brandon, but Davy does not yet realize it.

Brandon tells Marsh of the pass his father discovered long ago in the Black Hills, and he agrees to go with Jesson to survey it.  Deroux, still wanting to grow rich from his Snake River land, advises Jesson that Brandon should not return from the scouting trip.

Brandon and Jesson reach the pass, and Brandon begins to explore it by climbing down the steep drop on a rope. Jesson cuts the rope and Brandon falls, landing on a tree branch below. Jesson assumes Brandon has fallen to his death, takes both the horses, and returns to headquarters to report that no pass exists, and that Brandon has fallen into a ravine and died.

Brandon returns to find the rails turned south toward Smoky River and away from the pass. When he learns that Jesson has not reported the pass, he angrily accuses Jesson of lying. Brandon reports the pass to Marsh, and tensions grow as a fight brews between he and Jesson. 

Miriam professes her love for Brandon, and makes him promise he won't fight with Jesson. For Miriam's sake, Brandon tries to make peace with Jesson, who returns the gesture by trying to shoot Brandon in the back. The two then have a fistfight in the saloon; when Miriam finds out she will no longer speak to him.

Brandon is made the gang boss and the railroad moves forward. Meanwhile, Deroux makes a last-ditch effort to stop the railroad from going through the pass. He dresses as an Indian and visits the Cheyenne chief to incite them to war against the railroad workers.

The Cheyenne attack Brandon and the workers at the end of the railhead; Brandon races back to town for help.  When he returns with men, women, and guns to the end of the tracks, there is an epic shootout. Brandon confronts Deroux and fights him hand to hand.  Upon seeing Deroux's two-fingered hand, Brandon realizes who he is and in a rage chokes him to death. The Cheyenne are driven off, though some of the railroad crew have been hurt or killed.  Brandon, upset by the incident with Deroux and still being ignored by Miriam, runs off to join the Central Pacific.

The two companies race to the finish, trying to outdo each other in miles of track built.  At Promontory Point, in seven years less time than Congress allotted, the rails meet 1086 miles west of Omaha and 690 miles east of Sacramento.

When the tracks meet, a golden spike is driven. Davy and Miriam find each other, make up, and get back together again.

Plot keywords: epic western, transcontinental railroad, love triangle, Abraham Lincoln

Scenery: forest, mountains, plains, rocky terrain

The Iron Horse is available on DVD.

Classic Westerns on TCM

Westerns on Fox Movie Channel


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