#63 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
A sort of independent spy thriller, John Ford’s Four Men and a Prayer tells the story of four sons of a British colonel who investigate the circumstances around his dishonorable discharge and murder. It’s got a great cast, globetrotting, and gun smugglers, but in the end I found the exercise a bit deflating overall. Some of the pieces were there, but so much was either missing or confused that the actual spy adventure parts of the film never really felt all that convincing or interesting.
The movie begins with the court martial of Colonel Loring Leigh (C. Aubrey Smith) in India. He’s presented evidence against him for…something that led to some disaster, evidence brought by one of his junior officers. Dishonorably discharged and sent back to England, he sends telegrams to his four sons across the world to meet him at home. These are Geoffrey (Richard Greene), a British intelligence officer in Washington, Wyatt (George Sanders), an advocate in the British legal system, Christopher (David Nivens), a brash pilot with a few women vying for his attention, and Rodney (William Henry), a student at Oxford. The bulk of the beginning of the film is getting to know these four sons in their natural environments before they return home, feeling very much like brothers with long running inside jokes and little playful rivalries. This felt like a great start to a film that could go in really interesting directions.
However, things quickly just kind of begin sputtering. The Colonel, retiring to his room before dinner, is mysteriously shot. The captain from India they were bringing to help them begin to build a case dies in the car to the house, and the brothers have nothing but straws to reach for. Two go to South America and two go to India, both groups following trails that ultimately lead them back to Alexandria, Egypt. The weird thing about this is that both sides of the investigation end up finding pretty much the same clues leading up a chain of command in an arms dealing operation, most particularly the same model gun with the serial number chiseled off.
I think one of my big problems with this film is that the investigation never feels all that related to Colonel Leigh’s original dishonorable discharge. His name gets brought up, but the brothers’ investigation is about who’s running this arms dealer organization, not really about clearing their father’s name. There is one scene where the brothers in South America get the junior officer who testified against Colonel Leigh to admit he forged the document that got Colonel Leigh into hot water, but he’s quickly assassinated by agents of the organization.
In reality, the whole film ends up feeling like a series of spy movie-like events, including the arms dealers giving unworking arms to a group of South American rebels right before the authorities show up and kill everyone, but nothing seems to connect to anything else. When they finally figure out who’s on top of the whole shebang, it turns out the guy doesn’t even know it. It’s so weird.
What saves the movie from being a complete slog is the cast, in particular David Nevin and Loretta Young as Lynn Cherrington, Geoffrey’s belle who follows him to South America and gets herself involved in the spy game. Niven is just a charming fellow even when getting wantonly embarrassed by the two women he’s seeing at the same time at the beginning of the film, and he’s always a joy to watch. Young is a bit of a spitfire, injecting herself where she has no business, and she’s fun while she does it.
The movie ends on a heartwarming note, but the adventure up to that point has been so confused, repetitive, and weirdly built that it doesn’t really register. The loose structure allows for some nice moments here and there, but it’s far from enough to make the overall film worthwhile.