Dave Kehr (MoMA)
Original version with subtitles
John Ford’s first epic western, the 1925 The Iron Horse, helped to establish Fox as a major studio and Ford as Fox’s most prominent director. Granted an even larger budget and creative independence for his 1926 return to the genre, 3 Bad Men, Ford created perhaps the most fully achieved of his silent features, a historical pageant that never overwhelms its foreground characters.
Establishing the theme that would define his work for decades to come – the outsider who sacrifices himself for the good of the group that has excluded him – Ford creates three lovably eccentric outlaws (played by the early western star Tom Santschi; Allan Dwan regular Frank Campeau; and the first of Ford’s elfin Irishman, J. Farrell MacDonald) who resolve to protect a young homesteader (Olive Borden) and her fiancé (George O’Brien) from the violence surrounding the opening of the Dakota Territory.
Villainy, in the form of the territory’s gambling boss, is provided by the colorful Lou Tellegen, a Dutch-born actor who made his film debut opposite his romantic partner Sarah Bernhardt in the 1912 Film d’Art production La Dame aux camelias. Ford costumes Tellegen against convention in dazzling white with a 20-gallon hat, likely a sly reference to the extravagant costumes of Fox’s reigning cowboy star, Tom Mix.
A cascading series of action climaxes – including a land rush filmed with (or so the studio claimed) 2,400 extras, 1,800 horses and 450 covered wagons – leads to the first of Ford’s haunting diminuendo endings, which finds the young couple settled into an Edenic ranch with their first child, still protected by the spirits of the baby’s three godfathers.
Paradoxically, 3 Bad Men would prove to be Ford’s last western until he returned to the genre, with far greater self-consciousness, with Stagecoach in 1939.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal romanzo Over the Border (1917) di Herman Whitaker. Scen.: John Stone. F.: George Schneiderman. Int.: George O’Brien (Dan O’Malley), Olive Borden (Lee Carlton), Lou Tellegen (Layne Hunter), Tom Santschi, (‘Bull’ Stanley), J. Farrell MacDonald (Mike Costigan), Frank Campeau (‘Spade’ Allen), Priscilla Bonner (Millie Stanley), Otis Harlan (Zach Little), Phyllis Haver (Lily), Alec B. Francis (reverendo Benson). Prod.: William Fox per Fox Film Corporation. DCP 4K. D.: 91’. B&W and tinted.
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