3 Bad Men (1926) Director: John Ford
Coming at the tail end of the first phase of John Ford’s career, 3 Bad Men is his last great Western of the silent era. The following year he watched F.W.’s Sunrise (1927) and began a deep exploration of German Expressionism until he enacted a renaissance of the Western genre with Stagecoach (1939). Trains, cowboys, stagecoaches, Indians, covered wagons –early silent cinema was filled with Western archetypes and motifs. American audiences were enthralled with these films, however, by the late 1920s and early 1930s, Westerns had unfortunately gone out of fashion. 3 Bad Men came along right at the end of an era, featuring Ford’s long-time collaborating actor George O’Brien in the lead role (this was the last of their string of silent Western films together, though O’Brien did return to John Ford films in the 1930s and most notably classics in the 1940s like Fort Apache in 1948 and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon in 1949).
Based on Herman Whitaker’s novel Over the Border, John Ford’s last silent picture, 3 Bad Men, offers a remarkable story as Black Hills gold is discovered in the fictional South Dakota land rush (these scenes of rushing hoards making way for South Dakota were actually based on the Oklahoma Land Rush). It was filmed in the Mojave Desert and Jackson Hole, Wyoming where the Grand Tetons display majestically as white men from the east encroach upon Sioux lands. President Ulysses S. Grant opens the frontier and scores of settlers arrive, including Major Carlton of Virginia, and his daughter Lee (Olive Borden). Their fancy race horses are tended to by Irishman Dan O’Malley (George O’Brien). However, a reward for the capture of three horse thieves (or three “bad men”) is issued when they attack the Carlton wagon and leave Lee’s father for dead, but she mistakenly believes they are aid sent on behalf of her father. These criminals suddenly display a heart of gold. As with all John Ford films, there exists nuance within people; no one is simply a one-dimensional criminal.
In the end, Lee and Dan fall in love, and 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 (this last shot really stuck with me). The three bad men appear in the distance and slowly ride away over the hills.
“Years went on, the West was won and those who came for treasure
found it in harvests of golden grain.”