A beautiful, unnappriciated masterpiece. Ford had already proved himself with “Straight Shooting” and “The Iron Horse” but this is his first true masterpiece. There is none of the histronics of the former film nor the clearly studio added pretensions of the latter. What we have here is the a film that points the most to the amazing work he would be doing throughout the sound era for the next 40 years.
The films opening is very typical of late Ford. Rather than open on our main character like in “The Iron Horse” or the villian in “Straight Shooting”, Ford opens on the immigrants making their way to America. We will constantly come back to them, as they will be taking part in the Dakota land rush of 1877. They are pilgrims in search of a better home. These shots of the pilgrims leads to one oustanding moment very early in the picture. When we introduced to the 3 Bad Men, we are shown a series of Wanted posters, in various languages. Ford then shows the 3 men riding together, in silouette. They pause for a moment, as they spot the wagons of the pilgrims and some Native Americans on the overpass. This is where Ford’s genius comes in. Instead of cutting to the Natives and the wagons the way a director usually would, to match eyelines, Ford does NOT match eyelines. He instead cuts to the natives as though they are on the same plain. As a result of this, we feel like the 3 men, the indians, and the wagons are all standing together. Ford shows up outsiders, social outsiders, outsiders by force, and the poor and hungry. They may be outsiders for different reasons, but nevertheless, they are outsiders, and they stand together.
I feel like I am passing over the story of George O’ Brien and Olive Borden’s characters. While it is not the films main story, Ford must again be commended for making a simple story believable and brim with vitality. O’Brien is just as good here as he was in The Iron Horse, even if he is given less to do, and as a result of that, there is no more of O’Brien standing around and looking pretty. Borden, however, is absoutely fabulous in her role, and is a huge jump from Madge Bellamy’s performance in The Iron Horse. Ford handles their story deftly well, and they’re meeting at the beginning of the film is a lovely moment. There’s a scene later, where O’ Brien is re-united with Borden. There’s an amazingly sexual vitality in this sequence, all because of a “come here” motion Borden makes with her hand.
However, the real star of this film is Tom Santschi. Watching him makes wonder about all of the great silent actors who have been forgotton, or who’s films have been lost, like Santschi. Ford had another stroke of genius when, instead of casting three of Fox’s stars as the outlaws(they were George O’Brien, Tom Mix, and one other whom I forget), he casted two members of his already growing stock company, and hired Santschi, one of the first western actors who’s career was long in a slump, so much so that he was playing bit parts, as the lead. I cannot commend Ford more for this choice. There is no overacting with Santschi, no histronics. He acts with his eyes. He truly feels, as all actors should.
There’s a very quick scene, where Santschi, now hired by Borden along with the other two men, leaves his tent, and sees Borden holding a baby. This could have been just like any other scene, but Santschi just makes the slightest movement with his face, and the whole scene comes alive, and it becomes one of the most beautiful moments in John Ford’s filmography.
There’s another very quick scene not much earlier, where Borden hires the three men. Once again, it is a typically Fordian scene of sacrifice becoming duty. And it’s Santschi’s peformance, as well as Ford’s amazing shot selection that give the this scene so much meaning and such a strong emotional impact. We see Borden saying that she cannot pay them as yet. We return to a wide shot and Santschi walks over to Borden and says that he’s willing to work for nothing. We cut to a medium of the two other men, who look in not astonishment, but instead understanding, they finally feel what Santschi is feeling. Borden then asks “Then you’ll be my men?” We go back to the two men, who look to Santschi, as he is their leader. Borden turns as well. Santschi then simply removes his hat. The two other men do the same. At this point, Ford had already become cinema’s greatest poet.
I simply cannot praise this film enough. There’s another fantastic moment later in the film. Santschi’s sister, who he has been searching for for many years, has been killed by her lover. She has been killed by one of her lovers men(he happens to be the town Sherriff) by accident, as they were trying to kill the town priest, who stands infront of a burning cross when the moment takes place. Santschi becomes the phyical embodiment of sadness and rage, as be proceeds to destroy everything, so he can kill the sherriff. I know it sounds comic when I say that Santschi doesn’t walk through doors, but instead tears them apart, but it’s an astonishing moment in a fantastic film. Not much later a title comes on saying “The Grand Land Rush!” with other things attempting to excite the viewer. However, after the title fades, we see Santschi standing at his sister’s grave, with the wagons preparing for the land rush on the overpass in the background.
The land rush sequence is the most pointed out part of this entire film. As a result of that, I was skeptic, as I thought it may have just been an action sequence intended to excite the audience and nothing more. How wrong I was! This sequence works because although there is a large scale of epic grandeur, Ford is focused on the people at all times. We have watched these people travel to find a better life throughout the movie, people that we haven’t even been introduced too, as we’ve only seen them as wagons. Now we see them fufilling their dream. And at the end of the day, Ford doesn’t show us our leads of Santschi, O’ Brien and Borden, but instead an unidentified old couple in tears. “Busted by God” is written on their wagon. Suddenly the old woman picks up a handful of dirt and says “The parson was right, Ned; we’ll stay right here. This soil is as rich as gold.” No other filmmaker I can think of includes such beautiful moments like this in their films. These immigrants have at last found peace, or temporarily, at least.
The ending of this film is beautiful as well. The 3 Bad Men have sacrificed themselves for the lives of Borden and O’ Brien. They have gotten married and they have a child who is named after the three men. Borden calls the child out. O’ Brien lifts the child up and looks out of the window. Ford boldly cuts to a long shot of the three men, hand in hand, as they slowly ride away. This could have been very mauldin and sentimental, but it works, because of how strongly Ford has built our characters. O’ Brien and Borden are eternally grateful for the what the three men have done for them. Their memory lives on in the name of their child. They will never forget them.