#39 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Most notable for being the very first movie passed by the Hays Office at the birth of the Motion Picture Production Code, receiving Certificate #1 from the board, John Ford’s The World Moves On is worthwhile for more than just that historical footnote. A family saga akin to Anthony Mann’s The Furies, it tells the story of a large cotton conglomeration with presence in the US, England, France, and Germany begun in the 1820s as it enters the 1910s and The Great War rears its ugly head. Loyalties get crisscrossed as the backdrop to a love story between two people, and then the movie doesn’t find its narrative resolution for another decade. Contemporary reviews complained of the film, calling it way too long (a curious charge with a film that’s about 100 minutes long), but I disagree. It’s about half an hour too short.
The film begins in 1825 at the reading of the will of the Girard patriarch, cotton baron. His will sets forth the demands that his heirs split the company into four, one for each country, and run it in a way that puts the family and its needs first. In all of this is Richard Girard (Franchot Tone), set to take the reins of the American operation based in Louisiana. He sees the wife of a cousin, the beautiful Mrs. Warburton (Madeleine Carroll). They have a spark, but they are soon to be separated by thousands of miles and the Atlantic Ocean when her husband takes control of the English operations.
One of the more interesting things about the film is that Tone and Carroll play not only these 1824 characters but also their progeny in 1914. Richard’s great grandson, also named Richard, is prepared to welcome the different branches of the family back in America for a celebration at the nearly 100 years of great work they have all done, and invited is Mary Warburton, great granddaughter of Mrs. Warburton. She is engaged to the German cousin Erik von Gerhardt (Reginald Denny), but when Mary and Richard meet, it’s like the spark that their ancestors had shared carried over the years and they instantly feel a connection. There’s falling in love at first sight in movies, and then there’s providing interesting subtext and even a sense of magic to the idea.
The family is coming together to celebrate 90 years of success, and also to talk about the impending sense of war that is gripping the world. It’s obvious that they’ll need to strengthen their ties and gird for the upcoming disruption, and then they split to do their parts in the different parts of the world.
When war breaks out, Richard is in France, and he joins up with the French army to fight. Like Hawks’ The Road to Glory and Ford’s own Pilgrimage, most of the footage of battle is taken from the French film Wooden Crosses, and like Pilgrimage, the battle material is never the point. It’s a small sliver of the larger story that Ford is trying to tell, and that story is the fraying of the family in the face of a world war. When Richard goes to England on leave, he meets up with Mary and quickly marries her, effectively ending her engagement to Erik. The family is unable to move goods from one branch to another because of the dangers at sea as well as the embargoes countries are putting up.
The war ends, and it feels like the story is going to come to an end as well. This is where the complaints that the movie is too long come from. With about twenty minutes left, we get the Roaring 20s where Richard becomes a megalomaniacal power mad businessman, making Mary feel abandoned in the process, and then the Stock Market Crash that brings everything down all of a sudden. The two have to move back to Louisiana from New York to rebuild. Thinking of the saga part of family saga, I really wanted this part to be at least an hour long, detailing Richard’s change into a giant butt obsessed with money over family in the easy money times of the 20s after the hardships of the 10s. Instead, we get a contracted bit that feels like an extended coda that just happens to have some of the most important story bits in it.
Overall, the film is pretty good. A condensed saga that really could have either used more time to tell its full story or an earlier end point at the conclusion of the part of the film about the war. It’s solidly made (even though Ford seemingly wanted nothing to do with the film during production) and acted. It could have been much more than it ended up being, but what it is ends up good enough to entertain.