At the end of "Iron Road", which I must add was originally a 2 part mini-series, it mentions how many China men died for each length of train track which was laid during the latter part of the 19th century when they were brought over to work the rail lines. We also learn about the mistreatment of these men when after they had finished work they were suddenly hit with a tax on their earnings. The thing is that whilst I am glad they gave this epilogue to highlight what happened "Iron Road" is not really a movie about the mistreatment of the China Men who went to Canada but a movie which uses that period as a basis for a collection of interweaving dramas from deception to romance. As such whilst "Iron Road" is entertaining for those who enjoy melodramatic dramas it isn't a gritty dramatization of the era.
With railroad owner Alfred Nichol (Sam Neill - Irresistible) in deep with the bank over the railroad he is building through the Rocky Mountains he sends his son James (Luke Macfarlane) to China to return with 2000 healthy men to work laying the track. Young Little Tiger (Betty Sun) who has learnt all about explosives working in a fireworks factory manages to join the group heading to Canada having come to James's rescue a few times and hidden the fact she is a girl under layers of clothing. But Little Tiger not only starts to have feelings for the kindly James but she is also hoping to track down her father who headed to Canada many years earlier when she was juts a baby. And things get even more complicated when Little Tiger discovers some dodgy dealing going on not only threatening the project but also the lives and those of her compatriots.
So as I said "Iron Road" is really a collection of dramas but these really only dominate the second half of the movie as the first half whilst giving us the pleasure of watching Peter O'Toole as the amusingly named Relic is in fact a bit dull. It is dull because it focuses on James arriving in China and trying to recruit 2000 healthy men to take back to Canada to work on the railway. There is some drama as we see how a gang master takes issue with him over trying to steal his staff and it sets up the character of Little Tiger who in order to be treated fairly is already disguising her femininity whilst also keen to head to Canada to track down her father or find where he is buried. Personally whilst all of this is beautifully shot, something which the whole movie is, it goes on to long and is a subtle as a brick when we see Little Tiger being taught a couple of tricks with placing explosives because you can bet your bottom dollar that they will become important before the movie is over.
It is only when "Iron Road" takes us to Canada that the storylines start to unfold although again in a less than subtle way. As such we have Little Tiger trying to discover what happened to her father, we also have some forbidden romance as Little Tiger and James fall for each other after she comes clean to him about being a girl and then we have some skulduggery as Little Tiger discovers someone is cooking the books. As I said none of it is that subtle and so you can pretty much work everything out along way before it ever gets to do it on screen but these three elements interweave nicely to create an effective melodrama which will appeal to those who enjoy some romance rather than history.
What though helps "Iron Road" to keep you engaged is firstly the great mountain locations they chose but also the cinematography. There is nothing spectacular about the camera work, nothing daring or new but the beauty of the mountains is captured beautifully. What also helps is that there are also some surprisingly decent moments of atmosphere including a spectacular explosions scene where Little Tiger climbs through a cave in to set charges to clear the rubble and has to back in when it appears the fuse hasn't worked.
What this all boils down to is that "Iron Road" is entertaining if you like to watch melodrama with big romantic scenes and don't want to be presented by something which will make you think too hard. But it is not a gritty drama about the treatment of China men during the late 19th century when they worked on the construction of the railroads.