Archive for March 21st, 2012

By Peter Lenihan

Apologies for the tardiness of this entry—I’m finishing up teaching a summer course and things have been a bit hectic. The next installment will be on Wagon Master, which I would suggest is one of the five or so greatest masterpieces the Hollywood studio system produced. Definitely see it before my piece drops, if you haven’t already.

The Iron Horse, Ford’s first mega-hit, is built around a premise that in 2012 (one hopes) we can all recognize as bullshit. As conceived, this is a film about what one intertitle describes as “inevitability,” and as such it’s a film of trajectories rather than possibilities, whose final outcome (that is, the bridging of “east” and “west”) is not a foregone conclusion because it’s what historically occurred, but because, if we’re to believe what the film is selling, it’s the only thing that could have occurred. As a particularly bombastic defense of Manifest Destiny, then, it’s stupid and racist and vulgar in a way that Ford’s films almost never are, and I would encourage any viewer to approach it with a healthy degree of ideological distrust.

At the same time, to discuss it in this way is to suggest that it was more thought out than it was, and we now know that it was essentially shot without a script. This was the freedom the twenties and only the twenties offered American filmmakers, and although the story had a basic treatment, Ford chose day-by-day what was going to be shot. In retrospect, it probably couldn’t have been done any other way. This was the filmmaker’s graduation into the big time, and he acted as both director and producer. The degree of management required for a planned shoot of this scale would overwhelm just about anyone, and for a relative novice like Ford it simply couldn’t have worked. So, he did what he had to do—he made it up as he went along. (more…)

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