John Ford took imagery from the vaults of cinematic consciousness created by D.W Griffith and Cecil B DeMille and did those filmmakers one better: he charged this imagery with poetic rhythms that have stylized the western genre from then on.
The image in question comes a little more than halfway through The Iron Horse (1924). A herd of black and white cattle progress through a desert reservoir with two horsemen driving them from behind. Cut to a closer overhead shot of the herd; one cow circles around, strangely suggesting the human reaction to having forgotten something, yet not being certain. After a moment, the cow pivots back around and rejoins the herd. Now we cut to the herd moving on to the shore. Fade out as the horsemen reach the shore.
The motion here has a poetic quality mainly because of what it comes after: a scene of an Indian chief rallying his tribe with the call “My brothers, we will stop the Iron Horse forever!,” followed by a whirligig of horses stampeding across a desert ridge. (If there was ever a film that should be watched with a scratchy print, it is this one; the scratches compliment the constant flurries of dust.) The herd of cattle moving slowly and unassumingly across the water looks both foreboding and forlorn following this threat; will they be stopped forever? Are they pushing ahead for no reason? Man pitted against an obstacle is the ingredient of the story form, and film is the great condenser. Ford condensed the implications of an obstacle in to an image of slow motion across a body of water.
But the most important ingredient of this image is its use of the fade-out. The fade out was a device that was used before Ford more often as a melodramatic way of signifying that a scene was over. Ford may not have been the first to realize the greater possibilities of this device, but the used fade-outs and fade-ins in The Iron Horse, rather than suggesting that the scene had ended, suggest that nothing has ceased, but has rather moved on to a world other than the physical one our eyes see. The landscape the cows trudge through is never ending, the horsemen’s work is never ending, and the threat of violence on a group is a complex matter that cannot be contained in one scene. This is what the fade-out suggests. By using fade outs in such an ambiguous way, the delicacy of the image is preserved. The viewer wants to remember these cows and these men and does not want to fathom the true extent of their progress.
The Iron Horse is about people who just keep on progressing—the ideal kind of film—and it keeps fading in and out on them. This makes it one of the earliest Westerns to achieve a mystical attitude towards progression and the evils of the world. The film’s ongoing landscapes are a backdrop to this mysticism and the animals that work alongside humans while subtly adapting human qualities (the lone cow is not the only one) are oddities within this mysticism. Ford may not have known exactly what he had stumbled upon yet—he was still a young director, new to the epic form—but later directors would maximize on this Western mysticism and we must remove our hats to Ford for this stumble.