Three Bad Men

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 29, 2015

This Western adventure from director John Ford is both precipitous and wonderful relaxed. From our perspective, there may be a sense that at this point in time the western film is still in some ways a-forming. That’s true in a certain sense; there’s much to be done going forward, and certain essential evolutionary leaps—many of which would be overseen by Ford himself—were yet future. But Western novels and magazine stories had been quite well established for some time. More to the point, Ford also had long since been working this territory in a fashion most able and lucrative. So with regard to the Western it is early days, and at the same time Three Bad Men is a fully mature statement. Maybe that’s why it feels so complete and satisfying. Plain Hollywood professionalism is certainly another reason; everyone here contributes wonderfully. Or maybe, certainly, Ford is just a great director.

Anyway, for whatever reason and in so many ways, Three Bad Men is a wonderfully confident film. Every reassuring, potentially dangerous melodramatic stereotype is balanced by some bit of graceful business or other, or by some other humane and affectionate complexity. The forms are for structure and propulsion, to help orient the audience and move things forward. But art and humanity justify the forms, because they animate them, which is to say they bring a sense of life, and of care too.

What a terrific romance! Elsewhere, and where appropriate—that would be you, Mr. J. Farrell Macdonald [“No, I’ve been a bartender all my life”]—what terrific hamming! Ford ornaments the edges of his tale with this very able comedy, and places all sorts of fully committed, convincing blood and thunder in the middle. A key component here is that land rush sequence (mindful of James Cruze, 1923?). It is most impressive, and puts this familiar, pleasant generic material on a continental, mythological plane.

The conclusion/s could be hokey, if we made an effort to see it that way. Beneath that seeming hoke, however, is real moral/mythological bedrock. It’s in the title, which can obviously, must obviously be taken a few different ways. It’s certainly in all the careful preparation that leads us to this point. This will be Ford going forward, across decades and idioms. He communicates in an ingratiating and accessible manner. As he does so, however, he’ll be communicating some real gold. He, this is Hollywood at its best, typical, comfortable, monumental.