Directed by John Ford
Written by John Stone
Only seven films in, and already a second film by Western legend John Ford, who will continue to feature prominently in this marathon as the director with the most films to his credit on the list with 17, including such well-known efforts as Stagecoach and The Searchers. Getting to know the master with some of his lesser known, or certainly underseen, work, such as 3 Bad Men and The Iron Horse, only serves to increase my opinion of the craftsman for his deft tough and trendsetting direction within the genre. With 3 Bad Men, we get to see a few Western firsts, or at the very least get to see Ford begin to solidify his style and begin to write his legacy as a Western film director. 3 Bad Men manages to blend many of the tropes we have already seen, and will see for many films to come, marking the first time we see the outlaw heralded as hero in the same film, a common theme for many Western films that came after.
The titular 3 Bad Men constitute “Bull” Stanley (Tom Santschi), “Spade” Allen (Frank Campeau) and Mike Costigan (J. Farrell MacDonald), who are wanted men as horse thieves and murderers. But when they encounter Lee Carlton (Olive Borden), an independent young woman travelling with her father on the plains, the men agree to put their outlawing in the past in order to help protect Lee, and eventually find her a suitable man to be her husband. Riding into town in front of a gold rush to Indian territory in the Black Hills, the outfit encounter a renegade sheriff (Lou Tellegen) and a noble cowboy (George O’Brien). The gang of bad men turned good look to thwart the sheriff’s attempt to corner the gold rush in his favor, but at what cost to their long success gang?
What immediately struck me very early on in this film was how such a familiar Western trope as outlaw worship, or the mysticism following the Western outlaw, had yet to be explored in this marathon. The Great Train Robbery touches briefly on the outlaw, but without any such singular focus or portrait of humanity as John Ford provides in this film. For that fact, I look at 3 Bad Men as an important turning point in this marathon, shifting focus from the white settler versus Native American, to that of the outlaw and the various lawlessness that permeates throughout the Old West, and has found a welcome home within the genre. But 3 Bad Men goes beyond this simple revelation of outlaw mysticism, and becomes a well made, darn entertaining film along the way too.
What John Ford does best here is bring an extremely likable sense of humor to the proceedings. J. Farrell MacDonald, who I disliked in Ford’s previous film, The Iron Horse, for his offbeat style, seems to fit much more nicely into the comedic tone of 3 Bad Men. Ford, however, puts the story and drama first and foremost, crafting a Western that at once feels like a classic, first rate entry in the genre, especially so early in the Western cinematic landscape. The mixing of themes such as love and redemption are done really well dramatically, leading the way in front of the comedy. It is material that feels ripe for a modern remake, perhaps in the vein of the Coen brothers (think about the Husband Hunting scene, or the baby gag during the stampede), whose True Grit is a great example of a Western that manages to blend drama and comedy so well in that setting.
I am sure John Ford will be better than he is here (in fact I know this having seen The Searchers and Stagecoach previously), but 3 Bad Men was an immensely enjoyable romp through the West, full of fun, relatable characters, good performances, and a sense of command and mastery of the genre which imparts an aura that makes Westerns one of my favorite genres. The Old West is full of mysticism and legend, and 3 Bad Men feels like it is full of both. It is a great example of what to do with such a plot, on the opposite end of something like Tumbleweeds, which features a similar concept but lacks so far behind in execution, tone, and that sense of fun or grandiose which features so prominently, and successfully, in 3 Bad Men.