In 1924, William Fox presented "The Iron Horse," a fast-moving western adventure about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Last night, Fox Home Entertainment presented the newly restored film at the William Fox Theater.
"The Iron Horse" is one of the tentpole DVDs in the upcoming "Ford At Fox" box set, which includes 24 of his movies and a new documentary about the director. Most of these Ford titles are new to DVD. "The Iron Horse" has been out before, but not in this sparkling condition.
The movie tells of a father and son who try to find a shortcut through the Rockies for the east-west railroad. The father is killed by Cheyenne warriors led by a two-fingered white man gone native. The boy escapes to become our hero (George O'Brien), a man of the west. His childhood sweatheart (Madge Bellamy) arrives with her father, the railroad owner. Also with her, unfortunately, is her fiance, an engineer so weaselly that even Abraham Lincoln didn't like him.
The engineer falls in with the two-fingered traitor, now a scheming businessman trying to steer the railroad toward his lands -- and away from the much-needed route through the mountains. All Davy needs to do is locate the pass, expose the villains, fight off their Indian allies, get the girl and drive in that golden stake at Promotory Point.
Enhancing the action is a new score by Christopher Caliendo. The prolific composer lists Henry Mancini and Frank Zappa among his teachers; you can hear their influences throughout "The Iron Horse." The score feels mostly traditional, alt classical perhaps, with some engrossing detours into traditional (roots) music and the Varese-Zappa abstract. The DVD has a featurette about the music. (Caliendo worked on the revival of "Major Dundee" a few years back).
There are, of course, persistent blemishes on the 83-year-old "Iron Horse" visuals -- flashing, vertical scratches and the like -- but they're only occasionally distracting, as in one of the Indian attacks. Long passages go by without signs of wear or age. The overall impression is of silvery, richly detailed images.
Experiencing this Ford western classic in a theater was a rare treat. Based on the audience's reactions, the film retains much of its power in the new century. This DVD should not be missed.
"Ford At Fox" comes out Dec. 4, priced at $300 (before discounts). Three smaller collections go for $50. Among them is "John Ford's Silent Epics," with "The Iron Horse." The title also will be available as a $20 single DVD.
Read a short review of the "Ford at Fox" set.