Three Bad Men - 1926

Three Bad Men - 1926

John Ford's silent western 3 Bad Men isn't Ford's cleaned up Three Godfathers from 1948, but there are quite a few similarities, along with Ford's particular brand of sentimental affection for tough scoundrels discovering a vein of golden morality within themselves when the pressure is on. Olive Borden is a suddenly orphaned young woman whose father is murdered in the middle of Ford's American west, and a trio of usually drunk petty crooks become her guardians (though she talks to them as if she thinks she is hiring them), primarily because the leader of the three (George O'Brian) can see that if left unattended, the local sheriff (Lou Tellegen) who sidelines as a quasi-pimp, will take her under his unappetizing wing. O'Brian's character of Dan O'Malley spends part of the film wondering where his sister is (Priscilla Bonner), only to discover she was taken in by the sheriff earlier and ended up in a brothel. When a scene of revelation about what has happened to his sister finally occurs, the brother will spend a segment of the film chasing the sheriff and literally taking down door after door with his bare hands, an inventive series of chasing and fighting that Ford worked into some of his other movies, a stylistic tic that Ford had refined so well that two decades later he could parody himself in the long (and funny) epic brawl of The Quiet Man.

In the course of the movie, we understand the heavy drinking and tough talking "3 bad men" of the title have hearts of gold, but Ford's story* makes them prove it, which means they won't make it out of the movie alive. However tragic and outrageous Ford's story is, though, he ladles in a lot of comic humour which helps to disguise the fact he is reaching under disguise to pull on the audiences heart-strings. Like with his version of Three Godfathers which reduces the dilemma of a young woman and her helpless infant put into the hands of outlaws, Ford succeeds where so many other film makers would just end up with a maudlin hash.

* Story is from Herman Whitaker's novel "Over the Border" with an adaptation by John Stone with titles by Ralph Spence and Malcolm Stuart Boylan.

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