3 Bad Men

John Ford

It. tit.: I Tre birbanti; T. alt.: Battaglia di giganti; Sog.: dal romanzo Over the Border di Herman Whittaker; Scen.: John Ford, John Stone; F.: George Schneiderman; Int.: George O’Brien (Dan O’Malley), Olive Borden (Lee Carlton), J. Farrell MacDonald (Mike Costigan), Tom Santschi (Bull Stanley), Frank Campeau (Spade Allen), Lou Tellegen (sceriffo Layne Hunter), George Harris (Joe Minsk), Jay Hunt (vecchio cercatore), Priscilla Bonner (Millie Stanley), Otis Harlan (Zack Leslie), Walter Perry (Pat Monahan), Grace Gordon (amica di Millie), Alec B. Francis (rev. Calvin Benson), George Irving (generale Neville), Phyllis Haver (bellezza della prateria); Prod.: William Fox; Pri. pro.: 28 agosto 1926. 35mm. L. or.: 2438 m. D.: 85’ a 24 f/s. Bn.

T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

When approaching the scoring of 3 Bad Men, it was clear from the beginning that I had to draw from two, equally strong ‘memories’: that of my own family (my Irish grandfather and his stories on the Oklahoma land rush), and that of my symphonic upbringing, shaped by quintessentially American, yet heavily Europeaninfluenced, musicians. Composers like David Diamond, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson who were first and foremost students of Nadia Boulanger. Following their example, I approached this score trying to express a clear American voice through a European ear. When we listen to Roy Harris’ Symphony no. 3 or Virgil Thomson’s The Plough that Broke the Plains, we feel like we could be listening to music scored for Western films. When film studio composers from 1930s were looking for something uniquely ‘American’ to accompany what is probably the most American of themes – immigrants claiming a new homeland – they looked to classic American symphonies, using its inherent quartal harmony and western folk songs. Without attempting to upset the cinematic genre I was composing for, I tried to avoid, and hopefully succeeded, the musical clichés (I must admit, for the most violent moments of the film, this score would have most certainly been rejected by any Hollywood producer of the 1930s…). Because Ford’s last silent Western is a violent, dark film (counterpointed with Irish humor and an undeniable ‘human’ tenderness) which gets richer and more intense as it progresses. The magnificence of the photography and the vitality of the land rush dictated respectively the colour and the expansiveness of the orchestration and the use of percussion, while some of the thematic material was inspired by the lighter yet melancholic Irish folk tunes.

Timothy Brock


When Ford was ready to make another big movie in 1925, he returned to the Western genre. Ford learned a great deal about his craft from the improvisatory, trial-and-error process of making The Iron Horse, and the result was 3 Bad Men, the silent film pointing most clearly to the strengths of his mature masterpieces. Set in 1877 during a Dakota land rush, 3 Bad Men gracefully blends the epic with the intimate. This seriocomic tale, starring George O’Brien as an Irish immigrant saddle tramp, was adapted by John Stone from a novel by Herman Whittaker, Over the Border. Although the director’s favorite among his silent work was Marked Men, 3 Bad Men contains many thematic similarities to that lost 1919 Harry Carey Western. Both stories are centered around three outlaws who redeem themselves by protecting pilgrims (a child in the earlier film, a young woman [Olive Borden] in the latter) who need their help to reach what 3 Bad Men explicitly calls “the promised land.” Ford again draw ironic parallels with the Bible story of the Three Wise Men, represented here by J. Farrell MacDonald’s Mike Costigan and his pals “Bull” Stanley (Tom Santschi) and “Spade” Allen (Frank Campeau). Thanks in large part to the magnificent work of cameraman George Schneiderman, 3 Bad Men contains some of the most complex compositions of any Ford movie and some of his most virtuosic use of chiaroscuro in black-and-white photography. Yet despite its pictorial sophistication, this picaresque adventure saga always unfolds with effortless naturalness, and the images never come across as mannered or overly studied. After a previous audience reacted badly to the film, Fox made heavy cuts. Actress Priscilla Bonner was told that Ford “got very angry about what was done to the picture and wanted his name taken off it.” But Peter Bogdanovich’s book on Ford praises “the magnificent landrush sequence in 3 Bad Men (1926), a film unjustly overshadowed by The Iron Horse, which he had made two years earlier and which was more successful critically. The later picture, however, is better in many ways and more personal to Ford.”

(from Searching for John Ford)

Copy From