Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Directors, Film Festivals, John Ford, Silent Cinema

SFSFF 2010: The Iron Horse

iron-horse-posterThe San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and most well-curated silent film festival in the United States, celebrates its 15th edition by adding a day of screenings, opening Thursday, July 15 with a screening of John Ford’s The Iron Horse (from Dennis James’ personal 35mm print) and then launching into the weekend with the Friday evening screenings of Rotaie (1929), a late silent from Italy, and the newly restored Metropolis (1927), in a digital presentation with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, all at the historic Castro Theatre (in this case, historic also mean no air conditioning, so attendees are dressing in layers and watching the weather).

I won’t launch into a big preview—that’s been ably done by Michael Hawley at The Evening Class, Hell on Frisco Bay and Anne Hockens on SIFFBlog (with links to short previews of the individual films by David Jeffers), while Michael Guillen anticipates the restored Metropolis and reprints an essay on the restoration by Bret Wood on The Evening Class. I’ll be dedicating my coverage to reviews and ruminations, starting with The Iron Horse, which launched the festival on its new Thursday opening night.

The Iron Horse opens with a card that reads: “Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is the pictorial history of the building of the first American transcontinental railroad.” Such proclamations are to be taken with a grain of salt, to be sure, and Ford is loose with his fidelity to history and fact. Ford tells the tale through the fictional journey of Davy Brandon, the son of a surveyor, in the days before the Civil War, who predicts the railway running from Atlantic to Pacific to the scoffs of a engineer and the sage support of young Abe Lincoln. We see the young Davy lose his father to a two-fingered Indian (in fact a white man using a local tribe for his own schemes) and then re-appear years later as a strapping young man played by George O’Brien, a former stunt man and camera assistant promoted to leading man by Ford (who fifteen year later did the same for John Wayne).

No one in silent cinema has a smile like O’Brien, who is boyish and sweet with an all-American integrity and rough-and-tumble physique to back it up. He literally charges into the film as a Pony Express rider, outrunning Indians, leaping off his horse and jumping onto the moving train of the Union Pacific, laying track west under the guidance of the very same engineer (Will Walling) who scoffed at the dream. And he of course has a pretty daughter (Madge Bellamy), who is engaged with her father’s prissy, easily corrupted engineer (Cyril Chadwick), a man whose limited future is presaged by a dismissal from no less than now President Lincoln, who thinks that her boyhood sweetheart Davy is a boy worth waiting for. There’s plenty of melodrama to hang the history on, some of it quite inexplicable (why is the two-fingered businessman villain also a member of the Indian tribe and given free reign to lead the tribe in attacks upon the whites that serve only his mercenary interest?), some of it quite conventional (our heroine rejects our hero because of a misunderstanding that is narratively contrived at best), but all of it beautifully mounted with an epic vision and a dramatic landscape of the open frontier.

John Ford’s first American epic is not a birth of a nation, but its physical and symbolic unification in the wake of the Civil War. It is, in many ways, the birth of Ford’s essential themes: the meeting of cultures (the Irish, the Italian, and in a rather token way, the Chinese laborers of the West Coast), the sprouting of civilization (at least as defined by the American settlers) in the wilderness, and the building of a community in a shared purpose. The frontier towns that spring up like desert weeds and pull up roots to follow the construction crews are pockets of both wild anarchy and native justice, and Ford’s location shooting set the human drama against the magnificent Arizona landscape. The detail in the background was often as important as the drama in the foreground, from the lively business playing out in the boom-town saloons to the telegraph wires being strung up as the railway lines meet, completing the connection of the coasts. That quality of authenticity within the melodramatic conventions is what Ford captures beautifully, from the dramatic imagery of the location shooting (in New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona) to the labor and process of clearing land and laying track. A title card proclaims that the locomotives in the re-creation of the driving of the Golden Spike are the original “Juniper” and “116” engines of the real-life event. Studio publicity also laid claim to using Bill Hickok’s derringer and the original stagecoach used by newspaper legend Horace Greeley. He brought in real Native Americans to play the Indians (they also doubled as Chinese laborers for a few shots) and hired local cowboys for the riding scenes and stunts to ensure authenticity. (For more on the production history and backstory, see the feature I wrote for Turner Classic Movies here.)

The 35mm print is from Dennis James’ personal collection, which he told me he purchased fifteen years ago and screened only a handful of times. Though not restored, it is a well preserved print struck from a fine source and a pleasure to see, especially with James accompanying it on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer with the original score. It’s rousing, old-fashioned, one might even say square, resorting to strains of sentimental Civil War anthems for Abe Lincoln’s appearance, but it’s also theatrical and energetic as played by James, who knows how accompaniment can slow down the audience for an intimate scene and propel them into a dynamic action scene. He remains the great proponent of silent movie music authenticity, playing original scores whenever possible and using cue sheets and historically accurate stock music when necessary, and as always he throws himself into the spirit of the program, but always in service to the film.

James maintains (and the festival program proclaims) that it is the only complete 35mm print of the American version known to exist, though that may not be accurate. I chatted with Kevin Brownlow after the screening (for those unfamiliar with him, Mr. Brownlow is one of the great authorities on silent history and one of my heroes; his books The Parade’s Gone By and The War, the West and the Wilderness are among the most important silent film histories every published) and he noted that what we saw was in fact the British print, lacking some of the more dramatic shots distinctive to the original American print. “As always, the American version is superior to the foreign version,” he noted, and then smiled and said, “Wasn’t that a wonderful screening?” Yes, it really was.

I’ll be packing in screenings through the rest of the weekend so updates on the featured screenings, including notes on the restored Metropolis (tickets are sold out), will follow as time permits.

The complete schedule is on the SFSFF website here and you can follow the excitement on the SFSFF blog here.