Four Sons (1928)

Director: John Ford

If I characterised the sentiment in 3 Bad Men as thick, it’s a lot thicker in Four Sons, a wartime drama without any real battle scenes… One name seems to keep cropping up in the reviews of this film I’ve seen online, i.e. that of Fox’s recent star import F.W. Murnau; this piece calls it the best Murnau film Murnau never made. That’s probably overstating it—this is very much a John Ford film, as that piece also recognises, and I doubt F.W. would’ve actually made this—but the Murnau influence (which Ford directly sought out, hunting up his colleague for ideas and assistance) is unmissable; apart from reusing some of the actual sets from Sunrise, Ford also reuses some of his technique (cf. the foggy battlefield, the copious amount of moving camera), and the village postmaster is surely meant to recall Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh. If the technique is fascinating, though, I was less enthralled by the material it’s applied to… we open in a Bavarian village pre-WW1, Frau Bernle is the village’s beloved mother of the titular sons, one of whom gets a job in America, while the other three get drawn into the war when it starts… and when it does, the fourth son winds up fighting on the American side. While I’d be a lot less harsh towards the film than this chap is (though he’s not wrong about the film’s last third), I can’t honestly say I liked the film as much as most other reviewers seem to do (not to mention its original audiences; this was a megahit in 1928); as I said, the technique is nice but I didn’t really engage with the film on the whole as much as I’d like. Earle Foxe’s heinous German major is a caricature at best (without even the excuse of being propaganda in actual wartime), and none of the sons really made a great impression on me. Margaret Mann as Frau Bernle pretty much walks away with the film by underplaying a role that could’ve been engulfed by conspicuous emoting. Astonishingly, though she made quite a lot of films over two decades, this seems to have been her only actual starring role (most of her others appear to have been uncredited). What a waste of a talent.

One other thing: this was apparently the film on which Ford first made the acquaintance of a young football player by the unlikely name of Marion Morrison, who was then doing bit parts (apparently he plays an officer in this one) and stuff behind the scenes on the Fox lot. It’d be a while before Ford helped elevate young John Wayne to superstardom with Stagecoach, but this film nonetheless has that much historical significance. Also, I did like the bit where the “German-American Delicatessen” becomes the “Liberty Delicatessen” once America joins the war; obviously the “freedom fries” idiocy of the decade before this was nothing new…

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