3 Bad Men (Blu-ray Review)12 Sep, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars George O’Brien, Olive Borden, Lou Tellegen, Tom Santschi.
When I was a very young adolescent and first starting to read in depth about John Ford, the existing literature had it that the director’s go-to breakthrough movie to see (not that you really could in the early-1960s Midwest) was 1924’s The Iron Horse with George O’Brien, later the lead in F.W. Murnau’s enduring landmark Sunrise. Even then, O’Brien was an actor I already knew because his RKO ‘B’ Westerns of the 1930s alternated with their later Tim Holt equivalents each Sunday morning on my local NBC affiliate’s Bar 4 Corral broadcasts. Thus, every Central Ohioan had an existential choice on the Sabbath: God or George O’Brien (I went for the latter).
As for Horse, it was an expensive railroad-construction epic shot on location and with a two-and-a-half-hour running time — a sizable investment for Fox Films at the time but a picture whose critical/commercial success eventually made a Ford a truly A-list director after a long apprenticeship at Universal and then his subsequent Fox home. As it turns out — though it would be years before I knew this first-hand — the picture has a lot of grandeur but also some dead spots. As these things sometimes turn out historically, it’s no real match for the Ford-O’Brien 3 Bad Men, which came a couple years later in 1926.
There’s something else I didn’t know until I listened to author Joseph McBride’s Blu-ray commentary — or more precisely, had forgotten, because it’s discussed in his spectacular Ford biography Searching for John Ford. And this is that Men came at the wrong end of a screen Western boom that had commenced with Paramount’s 1923 The Covered Wagon — and ended up being a largely forgotten commercial flop until its rediscovery roundabout the early 1970s, when I finally got to see it in some kind of NYU setting (i.e. film class, at some New York-based festival or in William K. Everson’s apartment, can’t recall). Such are the vagaries of film history, especially when dealing with long ago silents, but the important point is that the movie is a jewel on any count and one that looks forward to Ford’s more mature achievements. McBride thinks it is the director’s finest silent, and I’d have to agree from what I’ve seen (much of the director’s pre-talkie output is, not surprisingly, lost). There’s also a great curio factor here because Men was Ford’s last Western for 13 years until he made something called Stagecoach.
In a typical Ford-ian touch, no one from Men’s title trio (played by Tom Santschi, Ford regular J. Farrell MacDonald and Frank Campeau) is very bad at all, though these guys are horse thieves. That was enough to earn a lot of practitioners in the day a “death by tree” — and if not that, certainly a portfolio of wanted posters. The number of territories looking for these guys cuts a formidable geographic swath, and they’ve ended up in the post-Custer Dakotas, where that general’s recent past-tense status has made it easier for the government to seize Indian lands for white settlers. Isolated parts of the movie are taken from the downtrodden POV of passively observant Native Americans, a temporary switch on what McBride pegs as Ford’s more standard characteristic: putting key actors and characters in the foreground of the image while placing ongoing “history” in the back.
Pointedly, this threesome will not swipe the horses belonging to a semi-abandoned young woman whose path they cross (Olive Borden), and, in fact, come to instigate a kind of paternal relationship with her, though scruffy Santschi likely wouldn’t mind taking it further. But as with his cohorts, the guy doesn’t clean up particularly well, and you can bet that the Israelis polished off their Arab adversaries in fewer days during their 1967 war than it’s been since these three stinky men have had an underwear switch. Instead, they play Cupid between Borden and O’Brien, an Irish drifter who’s comparably well dressed. O’Brien’s character, truth to tell, is a semi-afterthought here, even though chronologically, he places second on the list of screen history’s top four Ford leading men (with Harry Carey Sr., Henry Fonda and John Wayne).
The chief heavy here is a crooked sheriff (Lou Tellegin) whose whip-wielding can’t help but bring to mind the Lee Marvin character in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 36 years later (think of this the next time you read some young reviewer overpraising some director who’s just made his second film). There’s also some barroom mayhem to bring comfort to Ford aficionados — flying punches and chairs, of course, but also some broad amusement involving the trio’s misperceived gay-dom when they assiduously “look over” a saloon dandy in their attempt (pre-O’Brien) to find a suitable guy for Borden (they make certain to count his teeth), frontier dental work being what it was.
Reportedly shorn of significant footage that was filmed, then edited to 90 minutes and change after some unsuccessful previews, the story moves at a grand clip until the two big payoff sequences at the end: the elaborately staged Dakota land rush (which, in real life, put a toddler in danger, though to no ultimate harm) and some climactic violence between the Men and Sheriff Telegrin that’s impressively staged as well. As McBride notes, one can sense that the later Ford might have fleshed out certain story elements (or maybe he even did, pre-cutting), but this is an early work that’s nonetheless in keeping with the more fully developed masterpieces he’d later fashion.
With movies of this vintage one must take what the studio has, and the print here has the number of negative scratches you’d expect from a Fox release of this vintage, though the Blu-ray is definitely a fuller experience than the standard DVD included on the mammoth Ford at Fox boxed set that made a lot of Christmas wish lists several years ago. Men is also a primer on what the shelf life of some careers was like in the earlier days of movies: Borden was penniless by her ’40s, Santschi was dead at 52 by 1931, and Tellegen was a 1934 suicide.