3 Bad Men (1926) Director: John Ford
Early cinema was filled with the Western archetype and its accompanying tropes: trains, cowboys, stagecoaches, Indians, covered wagons, and so on. Audiences were enthralled by the American pioneering spirit. However, by the late 1920s and early 1930s, Western films had become a box office dud. John Ford, the master of the early Hollywood Western, and one of the greatest directors of all time, had made several stellar Western films in the 1920s including the epic The Iron Horse, which told a glamorized story of the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Most of his silent films are sadly now lost but he led a long and storied career in Hollywood. He even claimed he was an extra, playing a klansman, in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. He worked on various films for his brother as a stage-hand and eventually directed his own movies. As a director, he would later receive praise as a master being the favorite of other great directors like Ingmar Bergman or Orson Welles.
Ford’s last silent film was 3 Bad Men, a remarkable Western film of the South Dakota land and gold rush. It was filmed at Jackson Hole, Wyoming and in the Mojave Desert. The Grand Tetons display a majestic backdrop for the film. It later inspired a Kurasawa film in 1958. It tells the story of three horse thieves who rob travelers horses during the fabled South Dakota land rush. There is a reward out for their capture, however when a young woman’s father dies en route to Dakota, they decide to change their ways and take care of her. They take in a young and dashing, harmonica-playing cowboy because the young woman will need a husband. They go on many adventures, one seeking gold, one whose sister tragically dies, and in the end the three bad men give up their lives so that the young couple can escape freely and live a future life in peace among the rolling fields of grain (beautifully shot). The three bad men appear off in the distance and slowly ride away over the hills. Towards the end of the film there is a wild rush for land as wagons are lit on fire and a baby is dropped in the middle of the rush only to be rescued shortly thereafter. The drama is intense.
3 Bad Men was Ford’s departure from the Western genre in the 1920s and 1930s until he went on to make one of the greatest Western films of all time Stagecoach in 1939.
Maybe it is my own love of sweeping landscapes in old Westerns, but 3 Bad Men is a great film, enjoyable from all points of view. A triumphant epic, though not as successful as Ford’s earlier silent Western, The Iron Horse, however it is still a great film, the last of Ford’s silent films and his final Western until essentially reviving the genre with Stagecoach in 1939.