The Iron Horse ★★★★

Ford at his most Griffithian. Except, he keeps getting distracted by the history, the small details of life working on the railroad, the serio-comic ideas of what passes for justice and honor on the margins of society and civilization. Star George O'Brien doesn't even appear until an hour into the film, and Ford barely seems interested in the simple melodrama of his wildly coincidental revenge plot.

What resonates is the scale of the production, and the honest belief in the transcontinental railroad as a symbol of national unity and assimilation (at least for the Irish, Italians, Germans, and, kind of, Chinese who built it: African-Americans are wholly absent and the Cheyenne Indians a vague, hostile other). The villain is a deformed white man who passes for Indian, a liar. The heroes remain true to their ethnic identities while assimilating to the larger American whole. This contradiction within the ideal of assimilation, of how to remain true to yourself while fitting into a larger society seems to me a great Fordian theme, seen not just in its racial or ethnic aspects, but also in the figure of the outcast outlaw: the gunfighting man of action who can't make it into the new world he's made possible. How do we reconcile our past with our future?