1926 // USA // John Ford // January 26, 2013 // DVD - Fox (2007)
[Note: This post contains spoilers. Part of a series on the silent films of John Ford.]
When considering films that were created three generations ago, it’s often all too easy to assume a stance of jaded dismissal towards the proximal pleasures of story and characters. In the present age of irony, there’s a temptation to sidestep an older film’s most obvious narrative features and proceed to a discussion of formal qualities, thematic subtleties, and cultural context. It’s not an unreasonable act of negligence: films of a "certain vintage" can seem simplistic by contemporary standards of storytelling, relying overwhelmingly on stock situations, broad character archetypes, and a comforting predictability in the resolution of conflicts. (On second thought, maybe old films aren’t that different from today’s cinematic offerings...) However, when the most compelling thing about a particular Silent Era feature is its plot, the critic who fails to engage with the story in a straightforward manner does the film in question a senseless disservice.
Case in point: John Ford’s 3 Bad Men from 1926, an undeniably solid work of silent filmmaking that spins a warm, rousing tale of Western gallantry, dotted with rumpled frivolity and bittersweet moments. Given that it is a Hollywood tale of the Old West, Ford’s film naturally features a romance between a dashing frontier hero and the sassy maiden who catches his eye. In the case of 3 Bad Men, the cowpoke in question is Dan O’Malley (George O’Brien), a somewhat shiftless but clean-cut adventurer who has recently journeyed to the Dakota Territory with a throng of gold-hungry pioneers. Shortly before arriving in the unsavory boomtown of Custer, Dan stops to assist a damsel in distress, Lee Carlton (Olive Borden). Southern horse-breeders, Lee and her father are headed to Custer to sell their stock to settlers, who will need speedy mounts during the upcoming government-sponsored land rush. Initially, Dan attempts to play the droll loner, while Lee regards him with narrowed eyes, but sparks of passion begin to fly between the pair in short order.
Borden gives an alluring performance as Lee, despite the fact that the film occasionally wedges her toughened, self-assured character into a moment of uncharacteristic virginal quavering. Still, it’s a scrumptious little role, quite bold and nuanced by the standards of female leads in 1920s Westerns. The scenario by John Stone and titles by Ralph Spence and Malcolm Stuart Boylan do a fine job of economically conveying the character’s blend of Dixie delicacy and Western ruggedness, trusting Borden to sell it with an arched eyebrow here and a crooked pout there. O’Malley’s performance as Dan is not as memorable as his lead turn in Ford’s 1924 epic The Iron Horse, where the actor had a gleaming Boy Scout presence that centered the sprawling story. In 3 Bad Men, O’Malley’s character is more of a bland do-gooder than a paragon of manliness, though this has less to do with the actor than with the film that surrounds him. Ford and his scenarists just don’t have much time to spare for Dan, relying on his status as the handsome hero to hold the viewer’s attention.
While the romantic dance between Dan and Lee is charming in its way, it is likely that 3 Bad Men would have been a much shallower, less compelling film had it presented the couple’s courtship in a straightforward manner. What makes Ford’s film so intriguing as a cinematic narrative is that the love story is approached diagonally, through the eyes of a trio of horse-rustling, hard-drinking, tender-hearted scalawags: “Bull” Stanley (Tom Santschi), Mike Costigan (J. Farrell MacDonald), and “Spade” Allen (Frank Campeau). Slightly over-the-hill and a little ragged at the edges, Bull and his partners are a good-natured breed of outlaw. Notwithstanding their affection for fighting, cards, and whiskey, they are more rascally than wicked, preferring crimes that can be pulled off without undue violence. (That said, the scoundrels do seem to glean a childlike delight from the prospect of gunplay, especially when the odds are stacked against them.) What’s more, the trio harbors an almost chivalrous sense of honor. In an early scene, this code compels them to intervene when Lee and her herd are attacked by bandits, despite the fact that Bull and company had themselves been contemplating this exact deed of horse thievery.
The grateful Lee thereafter hires Bull, Mike, and Spade as foremen for the looming land rush in Custer, and before long the rogues are resolved to see their lovely, unattached employer married off to a proper husband. Consistent with the film’s admiring, humorous depiction of the outlaws, this compulsion is presented as simultaneously noble, affectionate, and exasperatingly presumptuous. A self-important middle-aged newspaper editor, a trembling dandy with barely a whisker on his chin, and various ethnic minorities are briefly considered and then discarded as possible grooms. Fortunately, a more acceptable candidate appears when Dan stumbles back into the picture in Custer, whereupon Bull persuades the bachelor to join the Carlton operation. The outlaw does not know, of course, that Dan and Lee have already met and been struck by Cupid’s arrow, and a dose of comedy-of-errors silliness ensues.
Meanwhile, an action-adventure plot unfolds in parallel with the romantic storyline. The horse rustlers who raided Lee’s herd are in fact the minions of Custer’s corrupt sheriff, Layne Hunter (Lou Tellegen). Unfortunately, the lawman develops a venomous grudge against Lee and her companions that boils over into a brushfire conflict filled with fistfights, shootouts, and explosions. Hunter is quite the fop—affecting a look that can only be described as “Roy Rogers’ Cabaret”—but he is also a gleefully vicious antagonist. The Sheriff is so accustomed to the cover afforded by his position that when his guileless sweetheart, Millie (Priscilla Bonner), presses him on the matter of marriage, he responds with cackling contempt. In keeping with the tidy plotting that is standard procedure in the Silent Era, Millie just happens to be the long-lost sister of Bull. The outlaw has been searching tirelessly for the silver-tongued snake who wooed his sibling away with false professions of love, and the cad in question is none other than the Sheriff.
This is already quite a bit of story to pack into 92 minutes, and the film throws in another subplot for good measure. A righteous preacher (Alec Francis) has recently arrived in Custer with the intention of rectifying the town’s wanton ways, a mission that naturally attracts the wrath of the Sheriff. In an apparent attempt to establish his credentials as an unmitigated bastard, the Sheriff at one point sets the local church ablaze while the preacher and his parishioners are huddled inside, requiring Bull, Mike, and Spade to ride to the rescue. The film’s various storylines eventually intersect in the climactic land rush set piece, where Lee’s group takes an early lead and the Sheriff and his lackeys close in to gun down the whole lot of them in cold blood.
Despite the sheer amount of plot that unfolds in 3 Bad Men, the film hums along at a easygoing pace, rarely feeling rushed or perfunctory. The action sequences are appropriately exciting and frenetic, but the film also takes the time for humorous diversions and for extended shots of characters mulling over their fates. Bull, Mike, and Spade in particular are allowed more screen time than the other characters, permitting a sharp depiction of the honorable rogue archetype that they embody. The extent to which the film lingers on the outlaws to the exclusion of the romantic leads is novel, and it is this cock-eyed approach that elevates 3 Bad Men above its satisfying but standard-issue genre components. Indeed, the film that most recalls Ford’s feature is Walt Disney Production’s 1959 animated adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, another romantic adventure in which three comic characters nudge the leads together and perform the bulk of the heroics.
In the current era of darker, edgier, ambivalent anti-heroes, there’s something fresh and appealing about Bull, Mike, and Spade: unrepentant petty criminals who nonetheless possess a clear-eyed, almost conservative set of values. Santschi, MacDonald, and Campeau all do a remarkable job of conveying the trio’s shared traits, while using their individual quirks as character actors to provide subtle shadings. (Ford cunningly gives each member of the trio a hat with a distinctive silhouette, which not only permits some visual gags, but also adds a striking flourish to that classic Western visual idiom, the long shot of men on horseback at sunset.) Santschi presents Bull as the sternest and most wrung-out of the three—he is, after all, the one member of their band with a personal vendetta—while MacDonald and Campeau give Mike and Spade more mischievous, acerbic streaks.
All three outlaws, however, demonstrate an unhesitant nobility and selflessness when the chips are down, which in Mike’s case in particular veers into an almost jovial determination to sacrifice himself in a blaze of glory. Ford creates unexpected emotional resonance by maintaining the myriad, contrasting aspects of the trio's character throughout the film: their sardonic view of criminality and violence; their paternal affection for Lee; their bull-headed loyalty to one another; and their doleful recognition of their looming fate. These bold strokes mark the men as idiosyncratic Western heroes, and ultimately make 3 Bad Men a memorable work of character-centered filmmaking.