Although they constitute only about a third of his massive body of work, John Ford’s silent films contain some of the most arresting visual imagery of his entire career. This is in part due to the influence of German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau who began working at the Fox Film Corporation, where Ford was under contract, in 1926. The Murnau influence can immediately and very strongly be felt on such late-silent Ford gems as Four Sons and Hangman’s House. But because only 15% of Ford’s silent filmography survives and because not all of Ford’s extant silents are available on home video, it has until recently been difficult to form a coherent picture of the way his early career evolved. This situation has thankfully been remedied somewhat with the release of the mammoth “Ford at Fox” box set from 2006, which made many Ford silents available on DVD for the first time and, better yet, the discovery of a long-lost Ford silent from 1927, Upstream, unearthed in a New Zealand archive in late 2009.
Upstream, a backstage drama about the love triangle between a couple from a knife-throwing act and a Shakespearean actor, is reportedly the first Ford film to show Murnau’s influence and, indeed, the plot sounds a lot like Murnau’s own long-lost Four Devils. The few color-tinted stills that have been released so far look exceptionally promising (see above) and 20th Century Fox, the studio supervising Upstream‘s restoration, is giving the film a “re-premiere” in Hollywood tonight. I can only hope a Chicago screening and blu-ray release will also be forthcoming. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on my own personal favorite Ford silent and the film I consider his first true masterpiece: 3 Bad Men.
When Ford directed 3 Bad Men in 1926, he had already made over fifty(!) feature films in the preceding nine years. He had started out at Universal making low-budget westerns and had established enough of a reputation in his first few years there to attract the attention of William Fox, who put Ford under contract in 1920. Ford made dozens of slightly more prestigious films for Fox, a slightly more prestigious studio, but he would not be vaulted to the front ranks of American directors until 1925 with the release of The Iron Horse, an epic about the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The Iron Horse was the first movie that really called attention to Ford as a visual stylist, primarily because of the film’s extensive use of location photography, which was rare for big budget Hollywood films at the time.
Ford always loved location shooting, especially in the American southwest, because it was more difficult for studio executives to keep an eye on him and because he just plain liked to “rough it.” On location, Ford and his cast and crew would basically go camping by living in tents under primitive conditions. In The Iron Horse, the circumstances of the building of the railroad onscreen effectively mirrored the ramshackle production of the film itself. One scene that amazed audiences at the time, and still looks impressive today, takes place in the mountains during a real snowstorm. As with the famous lightning storm sequence from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford figured it had snowed when the actual railroad was being built and went ahead and shot the scene under unplanned, harsh weather conditions at which other filmmakers would have balked. The authenticity that resulted on the big screen made The Iron Horse a smash success and led directly to Ford’s assignment to direct 3 Bad Men, another western set against the backdrop of a real life historical event, the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s.
The plot of 3 Bad Men revolves around the title characters, the type of “good bad men” so prominent in Ford, who help a young cowgirl, the splendid Olive Borden, avenge the death of her father at the hands of some truly bad horse thieves. They also help to find her a husband in the person of Fox contract player George O’Brien (who would gain immortality in Murnau’s Sunrise the following year). The social/historical context for this story is the aforementioned Dakota Land Rush, which allowed Ford to indulge two of his favorite pastimes: recreating history and staging incredibly dangerous stunts.
The Dakota Land Rush occurred after gold was discovered on a Sioux Indian reservation in the years following the Civil War and the U.S. government forced the Sioux to relocate. But the government would not let any new settlers lay claim to this land until an appointed time after the Sioux had left. When the hour came for the settlers to stake their claims to the land (and thus the gold therein), there were literally thousands of people just outside the border of the territory waiting to rush the land. As directed by Ford, this land rush scene is a fast-paced, exciting and brilliantly edited montage depicting literally hundreds of horse-drawn covered wagons racing across the plains. I consider it one of the greatest scenes in all of silent film, easily the equal of anything in The Battleship Potemkin, to which Ford may even be paying homage with his own baby-in-peril moment.
Although Murnau hadn’t yet arrived in Hollywood when Ford made 3 Bad Men, the film does offer at least one startling expressionist image: in the film’s dénouement, after the three bad men have made the ultimate self-sacrifice, giving their own lives so that a community is saved and civilization can perpetuate, they appear once more as ghosts; in a classic Fordian long shot, we see them as silhouettes on the horizon, literal shadows of their former selves, doomed to wander forever between the winds.
3 Bad Men is lovingly presented in the “Ford at Fox” box set with a magnificent, elegiac slide-guitar score composed by one Dana Kaproff.
You can read more about the exciting “re-premiere” of Upstream here: