I'm enjoying writing about The Iron Horse. On the surface it is something of a grand nationalist, overly romanticized view of how the west was won and where it got us. Right beneath that, though, are some really complicated metaphors and contradictions with no clear answers. The title card opens with
"Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is this pictorial history of the building of the first transnational railroad."
Then it jumps into a fictional adventure story. Cool to see a 1927 movie anticipating Fargo.
From my paper called "John Ford's Threesome"
The sequence just prior to the climax of the film happens in three short sections: the Cheyenne mobilize in the mountains, the cattle are herded across a river, and the workers lay rails. The initial image of the Cheyenne mass reflected in the waters is key to Ford’s exploration of the technological and historical implications of the story. Not only does the image of the Cheyenne riders mirror that of the train moving across land, but the mirror image is then mirrored in lake below, creating a double disconnect from what could be called an “accurate and faithful” image of a historical Cheyenne. Ford is admitting the portrayal of these events and people are mirrors of mirrors of the actual event, and furthermore that it is he who is controlling the mirrors. There seems to be no exact explanation for this. If the trains used in the film are the actual trains from the era, Ford expects the audience to accept them as fact. Yet he manipulates their presentation and infuses them with a complex metaphorical worth, then begins siphoning off that worth onto other, more distanced or caricatured events. The one-dimensional savages ride against the advancement of technology, but there is a strange visual harmony between the two, as if Ford is equating the faults of each group, whether they be White or Native American.
The movement of the cattle across the river is a beautiful image because it mirrors and reinforces that of the train, but it seems to serve little purpose other than to connect the divide between the actual editing of the film. The image bridges the gap filmically between the Cheyenne attackers and the railroad defenders, and thus becomes analogous formally as well as visually to the train. The movement of the cattle highly strengthens the metaphorical bond that the train provides the nation, but the same does not work in reverse. By mimicking the train, the cattle gain no glory, yet by being associated with such a natural and essential act as herding food, the train gains a timelessness that trumps any disconnections that may stem from its movement East to West. Ford confounds the new divides he observed with the coming of the train and instead secedes the entire idea of the western frontier, Indians, rivers, mountains and expanse, to the romantic ideal of progress.