The 1926 silent 3 Bad Men marked the end of the first phase of John Ford’s career. It was the filmmaker’s last western until 1939’s Stagecoach, as well the last major feature he completed before he saw F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise the following year and spent the next decade exploring German expressionism. Despite Ford’s subsequent stylistic shift, the film nonetheless demonstrates the director fully grasping for the first time the balance of grandeur and intimacy that would define his later, more mature work.
As 3 Bad Men commences, with a voyage westward toward a gold rush in the Dakotas, shots of a wagon train provide sweeping vistas of the Old West landscape, but Ford best captures the epic atmosphere of this time and place with more intimate reaction shots. Scattered members of a Sioux tribe watch the huge procession with somber helplessness, simmering at the white intrusion, but unequipped and under-manned to resist. Meanwhile, bandits monitor the wagons for weaknesses from afar like coyotes, and the eponymous three men who seek to rob the gold rushers are introduced silhouetted by the sun behind them, casting them in an ominous pall.
In short order, however, the three bad men of the film’s title—Bull (Tom Santschi), Mike (J. Farrell MacDonald), and Spade (Frank Campeau)—become unwitting heroes. As they prepare to steal some of the train’s horses, they spot a separate band of renegades beating them to the punch. “Our business is getting overcrowded,” Mike exclaims as the men rout the rival thieves, and their hard exteriors melt when they come across a sobbing Lee (Olive Borden), whose father was killed by the other bandits. Accompanying Lee to the nearby frontier town, the trio hang around as protectors, eventually falling into conflict with Layne Hunter (Lou Tellegen), the town’s corrupt sheriff.
The film’s action sequences reveal Ford’s innate command of multi-planar compositions, with contrasting movement in the foreground and background of his frames, but the moments that most clearly point to the filmmaker’s future mastery lie in small character interactions. Around Lee, the three bandits turn into clumsy but avuncular figures, and their concern for the young woman extends to trying to find her a husband in a funny scene where they scour a saloon investigating men’s teeth and physical attributes to find a suitable mate. Elsewhere, Ford’s favoring of medium and long shots over close-ups magnifies the sexual tension between Lee and Dan (George O’Brien), the handsome cowboy she meets at the start of the film. In perhaps the film’s most arresting scene, he seems to lean in for a kiss, only to grab her head and wipe a smudge of mud off her face, and the shot lasts just long enough to capture a twinge of longing on Lee’s expression.
Kino’s transfer doesn’t constitute a significant restoration, as the Blu-ray contains numerous instances of scratches, lines, and other debris. Some frames appear darker than intended. Despite these setbacks, some images are surprisingly crisp, with stable textures and contrast levels that render the long shots in great detail. The soundtrack fares better, sourced from a 2007 score that clearly renders piano and guitar without any technical issues.
Film historian Joseph McBride provides a commentary track that covers 3 Bad Men’s production in copious detail and also links the film to previous and future Ford works. There’s also a theatrical trailer, though curiously it’s for Ford’s 1937 feature The Hurricane.
John Ford’s great silent feature is a key film in the director’s oeuvre, and despite an unrestored transfer, it belongs in the library of all of his fans.