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December 21, 2007

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Silent Reflections – The Iron Horse (1924) and The Lodger (1927)

by HELEN GEIB

The Iron Horse (1924)

Most of John Ford’s silent films are lost, but thankfully the extant work includes his great films of the ‘twenties 3 Bad Men, Four Sons, and The Iron Horse. Though still shy of 30, Ford was an industry veteran of nearly ten working years in Hollywood and dozens of directing credits when he made the first of these, The Iron Horse, in 1924.

A Western about the building of the Pacific railroad, The Iron Horse has the confidence of youthful vigor tempered by self-assured experience. It is filmmaking on a grand scale with a panoramic scope and literal cast of thousands, kept grounded by sympathetic human interest stories and leavened by Ford’s wry humor.

The most unexpected aspect of the film is its boldly non-traditional story structure. The movie is an ensemble drama with several interlocking storylines illustrating different aspects of the great railroad enterprise. It seems at first that the hero of the story is going to be a character introduced at the beginning of the film as a boy about to embark on the great journey westward, yet the boy appears in only a few scenes near the start of the film and doesn’t reappear in his adult incarnation (as played by the young and handsome George O’Brien) until more than a third of the way into the film. He is an important character, but his story proves no more central to the movie than that of the broadly Irish, gruffly loveable, middle-aged Civil War veterans on the line crew. The main character of the movie is truly the railroad itself, as a physical system of rails and ties and as a metaphor of nation building.

The Iron Horse is a very entertaining movie that is well worth watching even if you’ve never seen a John Ford sound Western, but there is an undeniable supra-film interest in it as a precursor of his sound film masterpieces. Ford would revisit the nation-building themes and traditional Western motifs throughout his career, and several of the character types (most prominently the Irish sergeant) require no introduction to Ford admirers.

The Lodger (1927)

The Lodger is, in striking contrast, a film of almost no interest except as a study in the early work of its equally famous director, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock made few silent films, getting his start in the industry not long before the introduction of sound. The Lodger is his third (and earliest extant) film as director, and plays like the work of a talented novice with greater enthusiasm than skill. The tone and visual quality of the film vary wildly from scene to scene, veering from imitation German Expressionism, to by the numbers point and shoot, to fluid and innovative sequences that presage the brilliance of the sound films. Unfortunately for contemporary audiences, there are only a few of the last, and many of the first two.

Defenders claim the German Expressionist scenes are parodic. It’s a plausible interpretation of some of the individual sequences, but inconsistent with the film taken as a whole. If the Expressionist scenes are intended to be laughable, then this is an even worse movie than I think it is, because it makes those scenes not simply poorly rendered, but actually intended to undercut the suspense the rest of the film is designed to generate.

Star Ivor Novello’s performance is also imitation German Expressionist, and sits uneasily with the mostly flat performances of the rest of the cast. The best performance, and the highlight of the movie, is the consistently charming and spirited young heroine. The story is a serviceable atmospheric thriller adapted from a bestselling novel of the day. It would probably have made an enjoyable film in the hands of a more capable director, though missing those few brilliant sequences.

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  1. Hunter Hale
    May 7 2009

    While I’ll agree that THE IRON HORSE and FOUR SONS are excellent early examples of John Ford’s later work, I would not include 3 BAD MEN in that list. It is a film that I wanted to like but it shows Ford at his worst. The character actors (the three bad men with hearts of gold) should have been right up Ford’s alley, but time and time again Ford resorts to his low comedy and greatly reduces the effect of the relationship these “bad” guys have when they find themselves helping out a young women in need. His work in this film reminds me of the terrible “Dodge City” scene that he put in the middle of CHEYENNE AUTUMN. The climax of 3 BAD MEN fails because Ford attempts to make the viewer feel for the sacrifice that each of the bad guys are making so that the girl and George O’Brien can make their escape. Each man holds off the pursuing horsemen and in so doing gives up his life. The way Ford stages these scenes is very weak. In every case the characters die without really using their heads to hold off the on comers. It falls flat. Ford would revisit this subject to much better effect with 3 GODFATHERS.

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