Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Iron Horse (1924)

WHO: John Ford directed this.

WHAT: It's not my personal favorite of Ford's silent films (that'd be, of those I've seen so far, Four Sons) but The Iron Horse is still a lovely example of one of the great American filmmakers' early access to the poetry of landscape. I think of it as something of a spiritual precursor to Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo: a fictionalized version of a true story of 19th-Century "New World" economic expansion, that nonetheless was filmed in certain ways almost as if a documentary: Herzog's crew actually sent that ship over that mountain, and Ford's actually laid at least a mile and a half of railroad track while filming the story of the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In lieu of a Burden of Dreams-style documentary on The Iron Horse, do read David Kiehn's terrific article, written for the 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation of the film.

Another similarity between the Ford and Herzog films highlights what's probably their most fundamental difference: both have complicated- one might also say problematic- relationships to the Indian tribes that made up a good portion of each film's cast and crew.  Fitzcarraldo ends, intentionally, like an art movie, all tangled up in conflicted feelings about the relative success and failure of the white capitalist/art lover and the Campa-Ashaninka Indians to achieve their goals. 

The Iron Horse has a relatively traditional, happy, "Hollywood ending" for its characters, for American history, and certainly for its producers, as the film outgrossed every other US release in 1924. But a modern or so-called "enlightened" audience can also have conflicted feelings about this ending- these endings- especially from the perspective of the Paiutes who performed in the film. Ford films a simple scene of laborers reunifying with their fellows after being separated onto different work crews with such warmth and emotion, while the ceremonial conclusion of the film, with the driving of the Golden Spike, feels more like a tacked-on addendum, even with its wrapping up of the romantic plot. One wonders if this contrast reveals something of Ford's own feelings about the human stories caught up in the sweep of history. 

WHERE/WHEN: 4:00 PM today only at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Musuem.

WHY: This afternoon's screening is part of LaborFest and its FilmWorks United selection of screenings happening at various venues around Frisco Bay throughout July. I believe this is the first year of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's involvement as a venue. Most of the FilmWorks United screening selections are documentaries (last Friday saw the local premiere of Ken Loach's latest, for instance) but there are three silent features as well, all of them involving the railroad, which seems apropos after last week's BART strike. Last night it was William S. Hart in The Whistle, also at Niles. Today it's The Iron Horse. And on Thursday July 18th (unfortunately the opening night of the SF Silent Film Festival) LaborFest will host a screening of Sergei Eisenstein's depiction of a 1903 locomotive factory Strike at 518 Valencia.

Also worth mentioning although not officially connected to LaborFest: The Weavers, about the Silesian Weaver Revolt of 1844, has been called the "German Potemkin" and screens at the Castro July 21st. And Potemkin screens this month too, on July 28th at Davies Symphony Hall with live accompaniment by organist Cameron Carpenter. Tickets start at $15 for nosebleed seats, but it's a pretty big screen.

HOW: The Iron Horse is a 16mm screening with live piano accompaniment by Bruce Loeb.

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