#73 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Well, this was disappointing. Coming off of his strongest silent entry, John Ford makes an overstuffed and barely coherent little issue film that just simply doesn’t work in The Blue Eagle. Moving in several directions at once but never really seems to understand what story it wants to tell.
It begins on a naval vessel during World War I. In the boiler room are two men, George Darcy (George O’Brien) and Tim Ryan (William Russell). They’re both from the same town and heads of local rival gangs back home. And their gangs are there with them in the boiler room. Out of the gate this film starts with a heaping dose of contrivance. It’s not the greatest place to start. The rivalry quickly comes to a head and the two, both wooing the same woman back home (Janet Gaynor’s Rose), start swinging at each other. Being a Hollywood production in the 20s, what does the ship’s command personnel decide to do with such a situation? If you thought that they would organize an on deck and ad hoc boxing match to settle the affair forever, you’d be right.
The fight gets called off when the ship is called into action, though, (in a sequence that has been lost and replaced with descriptive intertitles) and suddenly the war is over. How important was it that these two were brothers in arms on a naval vessel in time of war? None important, that’s how much.
The two go back home and return to their lives. George has a younger brother, Limpy (Philip Ford), who’s gotten into – something – during the war. It’s unclear as it happens, and it’s weird to me that it’s so unclear. This was pre-Hayes Code and the limits on showing things like drug use were much less stringent than less than a decade later. In fact, later in the film, they say that there’s a “dope” epidemic in the city (it becomes the story’s plot at about the halfway point). The scene that introduces Limpy, though, is much less clear. Limpy sits on a bed next to another man, both in suits, and the other man kind of looks a bit spaced out. I honestly thought Limpy had gotten involved in the mob. There’s also business between George and Tim and Rose as Rose plays with both of their hearts at a dance organized by the local revered.
The plot that eventually develops (quite seriously at about the 30-minute point of a 56-minute long film) is that the police want Tim and George to unite forces to fight the dope smugglers who have (checks notes) a submarine to smuggle drugs into the city. Not like a little submarine but a full-on military grade submarine. After the deaths of a couple of close friends of each (contrivance is all over this film) the two decide to go ahead and chase off the drug smugglers together in the typical Ford action sequence, though this one ends up so confused visually that it’s often hard to figure out what’s actually happening on screen.
This feels like some of Ford’s earliest films. Unfocused, poorly structured, and often feeling completely random, it’s a real disappointment after the magnificent 3 Bad Men. But those were the early studio days. The guy was making something like three movies a year. There was no real time to agonize over details. You filmed what the script said and handed it off to the editor to finish up while you started working on the next one. This system can produce great works, and it can produce confused end products that probably could have been fixed with more time and attention.
Even so, this is probably Ford’s lowest point in his silent period.