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With: George O'Brien, Olive Borden, Lou Tellegen, Tom Santschi, J. Farrell MacDonald, Frank Campeau, Priscilla Bonner, Otis Harlan, Phyllis Haver, George Harris, Alec B. Francis, Jay Hunt
Written by: John Stone, Ralph Spence, Malcolm Stuart Boylan, based on a novel by Herman Whitaker
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating:
Running Time: 92
Date: 08/28/1926

3 Bad Men (1926)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Land Made

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though John Ford was apparently unhappy with the results, 3 Bad Men is largely considered one of the better films of his silent-era output. It introduces us to the cheerful "singing" cowboy Dan O'Malley (George O'Brien, a veteran of as many Ford films as John Wayne and Henry Fonda), who looks like he's going to be the hero when he helps out the pretty Lee Carleton (played by Olive Borden) and her father replace a broken wheel on their wagon. They are all headed to the Dakotas in a search for land and/or gold.

We also meet sheriff Layne Hunter (Lou Tellegen), and then the three "bad men" of the title, horse thieves "Bull" Stanley (Tom Santschi), Mike Costigan (J. Farrell MacDonald), and "Spade" Allen (Frank Campeau). But in a twist, it turns out that the sheriff is the bad guy and the bad men are the good guys. They come upon Lee after her father has been killed and agree to help and protect her. (They are similar to Ford's 3 Godfathers.) We learn from the commentary track, additionally, that Ford's nickname was "Bull," indicating that he identified with the leader of the "bad men" rather than the squeaky clean O'Malley.

Ford's broad humor plays better in silent form than it does in many of his talkies, and 3 Bad Men made me laugh quite a few times. It's also visually beautiful, with many gorgeous frontier shots, cowboys framed in the setting sun, and foreground-background compositions. It should be noted that Ford was considered an "A" list director already, thanks to the success of his epic The Iron Horse, made two years earlier. It's telling that he dialed back for this film, focusing more on characters and their interactions of honor and betrayal than on giant set-pieces, and 3 Bad Men happily looks forward to the many great films he would make over the rest of his career.

Kino Lorber released this essential Ford film on Blu-ray for 2016. The restoration is quite good, with a very good score consisting of piano, guitar, and violin. (The score was previously featured in the giant Ford at Fox DVD box set from 2007.) Joseph McBride, a professor at San Francisco State University and the author of two excellent books on Ford, provides the useful, highly knowledgable commentary track.

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