Note: This is the hundred-and-forty-ninth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1928 film, FOUR SONS, directed by John Ford.
To be known as the great cinematic chronicler of the Wild West, John Ford, by 1928, was two years into a 13-year break from the western genre. In fact, the year, the pinnacle of Ford’s surviving silent career (ten of the over 60 products of the time still exist), was decidedly international. Ford’s Irish heritage was explored in MOTHER MACHREE (1928, also an immigration tale) and HANGMAN’S HOUSE (1928), and FOUR SONS, a film that benefited from sets left over from Fox’s production of F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927), was a World War I story…told from the perspective of the Germans. Favorably, I might add, which was not entirely novel ten years out from the end of the Great War, but also braver than might be expected of a conservative studio system. Like the best of his films, FOUR SONS, while its protagonists are foreign, displays Ford’s uncanny ability to leverage American mythmaking for his own, more complicated ideals.
FOUR SONS owes more to Murnau than just the sets of SUNRISE. FOUR SONS and HANGMAN’S HOUSE showcased a tremendous respect for the German filmmaker, and the latter especially leaned more heavily into an Expressionist influence. With FOUR SONS, however, Ford impressively crafts an epic that spans years and an ocean with only 96 minutes, one with a tragic yet ultimately reaffirming sweep. The tragedy comes with the outcome that only one of small village resident Mother Bernle’s titular sons survives, and that’s the one that had gone to America. The reaffirmation comes from Ford’s apparent belief, or at least screenwriter Philip Klein’s, or at least author of the story on which FOUR SONS is based, I. A. R. Wylie’s, that the American system, for all its inconsistencies and problems, can in fact admit immigrants for the benefit of those from abroad and the United States.
The beauty of FOUR SONS is both visual and thematic. Cinematographers Charles G. Clarke and George Schneiderman repeatedly display scenes with divine and heavenly sunlight, usually framing Mother Bernle herself (played, by the way, by Margaret Mann). Otherwise, smooth tracking shots and that aforementioned set design envelop the film in a quaint yet powerful mood. And when appropriate, things turn surreal and morbid, as in the case of a relatively brief war scene in which the regiment of American emigre Joseph (James Hall), who had joined the Army on the American side, kills Joseph’s own brother Franz (Ralph Bushman). Franz had been forced into the army after the other two brothers, Johann (Charles Morton) and Andreas (George Meeker), had died in the war themselves. Franz dies in his brother’s arms amid a foggy, swampy, dreamlike (or rather nightmarish) landscape, a holdover perhaps from SUNRISE’s lakeside setting.
The morbidity of FOUR SONS manifests most prominently in the cumulative “picking off” of the sons, and it can be tracked through the symbolic figure of the postman (Albert Gran). The big, buoyant man starts the film as a center of the community, strolling through town and having comic and flirtatious little moments throughout. But as the film progresses and he must deliver the letters with the black bars (indicating a soldier’s death), the deterioration of his spirit stands as the emblem for the despair of those at home during wartime.
Another dark moment comes near the end of the movie. Once the war has ended elsewhere, the otherwise untouched village’s regiment rebels against its major (Earle Foxe), breaking into his quarters and handing him a pistol to “speed him to a better place.” As they wait outside, a shot rings out; Ford, like the best silent film directors, was still somehow able to communicate sound with the subtlest of movements, such as with a slight jump among the soldiers waiting outside the door.
These moments establish FOUR SONS as a film questioning the need and outcomes of war, sure. But it’s not so evidently an anti-war film like THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921) or THE BIG PARADE (1925); those films seem to filter political ideology down into human experiences. For Ford, the war is almost incidental, a force of nature that casts people wherever it may. His aim is, as mentioned, the American myth, also a monolithic force of nature that Ford would come to wrangle unlike most any other filmmaker. In depicting Mother Bernle’s ultimate move to America after the war, Ford does not take a harsh stance against immigration policy. He, and Klein, do, however, needle it and question its form. “But Americans had strange immigration laws,” one intertitle reads. “Before they would admit her, Mother Bernle must learn her letters.” This interpretation is just vague enough for any number of conclusions to be drawn from it, but Ford sees the humanity in the moment. He sees a mother and grandmother yearning to see her only surviving family after the ultimate hardship, and he sees that woman facing yet another difficulty that may prevent her from doing so. It’s a touching, progressive moment, and yet another example that puts the lie to anyone wishing to conflate Ford’s constant collaborations with John Wayne and fixation on the western genre with a pervasive conservatism.