By 1926, John Ford was already at the top of his game. While his silent films are often overlooked and his 1950s classics lauded as his best, a couple of his silent films are absolute masterpieces. His first truly great film was 1924’s The Iron Horse, his railroad epic about different ethnic groups coming together as Americans through the one thing that binds all men of his era–killing Indians. In 1926, 3 Bad Men dispenses with the Indian killing on screen–though it is preluded with text that could come straight from Frederick Jackson Turner about the tribes fading away and Dakota opening to white men. Instead, it focuses on a group of 3 criminals who become good men when faced with GOOD, though in this case it’s really more CUTE, in the face of Olive Borden. The real bad guys are an evil sheriff and his band of gangsters. And then there’s the solid cowboy who you know from their first meeting with end up marrying our heroine. It may sound dumb, but in terms of films about friendship, this is among the best I’ve ever seen and is perhaps the single best I’ve seen in the entire silent era. The action scenes, the pathos, and the camera work are already equal to anything Ford did in his more well-known films. It’s really brilliant.
One thing that we often forget about Ford is that he was a political liberal and an ardent support of The New Deal. I’ve talked before here how I see The Searchers as just as evil and racist as Birth of a Nation. I hold by that claim. The real difference is that the former is updated for time–you couldn’t actually show the KKK in a good light in the 50s or 60s. But it’s the same white supremacist message. The thing is though that for liberals such as Ford, but also many in the Roosevelt administration, their story of America, so influenced by Turner and his followers, simply had no room in it for the tribes. This is the actual answer to how Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes The Age of Jackson and doesn’t mention Indian Removal. For liberals of that time, it simply didn’t matter. Of course that was going to happen, as it should to make way for a white male democracy at the core of the nation’s growth and strength. One of these days, maybe I will finally write the academic article I’ve thought about for years about these issues. But 3 Bad Men is another example. This is a story of outright land theft and yet not even Ford’s fake Indians show up. They are just irrelevant in this broader story of rightful white conquest, which in this case based around the Black Hills of course ends not with mining but with farming the supposedly rich soil.
Anyway, check out the film. Whole thing is available on YouTube.