#9 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
The first hour or so of John Ford’s 3 Bad Men is perfectly fine Western storytelling. The last half hour is probably the best he’d put together up to that point in his career, bringing every narrative element to full fruition in a finale that combines historical recreation, adventure, and pathos with a strong focus on character that elevates the entirety of the film to become the strongest film of Ford’s silent period. This is an absolute gem of a film that feels like classic Hollywood at some of its finest.
Sometimes referred to as a precursor to Ford’s later Three Godfathers, bearing certain parallel narrative elements, 3 Bad Men‘s story is set during the Black Hills Gold Rush. A mass of people seeking gold in the Dakota hills are traveling by wagon train including the Carlton family. Separating from the train for a few hours they struggle to catch up, eventually come upon by horse thieves. Nearby are the titular three bad men, “Bull” Stanley (Tom Santschi), Mike Costigan (J. Farrell MacDonald), and “Spade” Allen (Frank Campeau). All some kind of outlaw in the East, they look upon the thievery and decide to act. Scaring off the thieves, they discover that only one of the Carlton family remains, the adult daughter Lee (Olive Borden). Deciding to do some good, they escort her to Custer, South Dakota.
Custer is the landing ground for the land rush scheduled for a few days later. Ruled by the corrupt sheriff Layne Hunter (Lou Tellegen), the place is a den of sin, for instance in the way that Hunter has taken advantage of the young girl Millie (Priscilla Bonner) who presumably works in the brothel, ensuring that he would make an honest woman of her once a preacher came into town. Well, that wagon train contains a preacher (Alec B. Francis), and Hunter just walks away when Millie comes to him with the happy news. News comes to Hunter that an old prospector has found a rich site of gold, and he’s going to get that information from him no matter what.
Into Custer rides the three bad men and their charge. They decide that they need to do something with Lee, and that something is to find her a good husband, quickly focusing on the singing cowboy Dan (George O’Brien). They bring him on, and we get some quite amusing bits of early stage courtship as the two get to know each other, obviously being perfect for each other. Things turn when Hunter finds the prospector in the wagon train encampment, tries to beat the information of the gold deposit out of him, and accidentally shooting him, drawing the attention of the whole camp. The prospector, of course, gives the information to our five heroes, and the stage is set for the climactic land rush.
Ford had shown a love for interesting side characters in many of his films, but this is really the first where they’re pushed to the forefront. They’re not distractions, they are the emotional fulcrum on which the whole movie ends up relying. The most prominent of the three is Bull. He’s treated the most like a character while Spade and Costigan get more amusing comic business throughout, but he also has a key moment with Millie that helps inform his later motivations.
The finale is the greatest form of Ford’s ability to control chaos in his silent career. The mass of wagons and horses tearing across the landscape (complete with a mobile printing press trying to record the news as it happens) is an epic site. It’s all backdrop, of course, never dominating the film, for the chase that develops between the three bad men, Dan, and Lee as they race towards the gold deposit and Hunter and his men determined to follow and kill them. This would be fine on its own, but the three bad men have to become great men in trying to fight off the pursuing posse. As the party dwindles from five to less, there’s real pathos to how the deterioration occurs, mixed with wonderful action beats to keep things exciting at the same time as being emotionally compelling.
The two characters whom would have been the central characters in a more traditional telling of the story, Dan and Lee, would have been a good, solid foundation on which to build such a story. However, putting it in the hands of our three anti-heroes gives 3 Bad Men a surprisingly modern feel for a film made in 1926. They have arcs more pronounced than just having two young people falling in love with the backdrop of the gold rush.
I ended up completely loving this film. It’s a wonderful early work from Ford that shows all of his strengths as a director in a rough and tumble form.