Directed by John Ford
The United States of America
John Ford has rightfully gone down in history as one of the most influential and charismatic figures of American cinema. With his ever-present dark glasses and pipe, he ruled over the production of nearly 150 films. Of all of his films, none were as beloved as his Westerns. Many of his offerings to the Western genre would go on to be hailed as supreme classics: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But to those who yearn to venture beyond his dust-covered explorations of the frontier, Ford directed some of the most emotional and gripping dramas in early American film. The Informer (1935) won Ford his first of four Academy Awards for Best Director. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) devastated audiences and aroused America’s anti-Communist agencies with its truthful depiction of Dust Bowl migrant workers. How Green Was My Valley (1941) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, beating out films like Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon. But despite all of his accolades and praises, many of his greatest works go unnoticed: of the 60+ silent films that Ford directed, less than a dozen survive. Of these survivors, the two most important were The Iron Horse (1924), a pioneering Western, and an oft-forgotten masterpiece simply titled Four Sons (1928).
It seems strange that such a magnificent film would be forgotten. At the time of its release, it was hailed by many as the best film of the year. From a financial standpoint, it made an absolute killing at the box office. On its fiscal success, Ford remarked, “Strangely enough, it became one of the biggest money makers ever made. It still holds the attendance record at the Roxy, which was one of the biggest theatres in the world. Of course, other pictures have outgrossed it because the admission prices were much lower in those days -- a quarter instead of two dollars.” It’s acting won near universal praise and admiration from audiences and critics. From an artistic standpoint, it was one of Ford’s most startling, drawing comparisons to none other than F.W. Murnau (ironic considering that Ford reused the village sets from Sunrise in Four Sons).
Four Sons follows a family living in a small Bavarian village shortly before the outbreak of World War One. Their matriarch, Mother Bernle, is a much beloved village elder, offering drinks to the mailman and honey cake to little children. Bernle is the proud mother of four strong, fully grown sons. The oldest son, Joseph, has dreams of life in America. Mother Bernle gives him her life savings to travel to America and make his fortune. It is a tearful departure, but one highlighted by visions of hope and prosperity.
However, war soon comes to knock on Mother Bernle’s door. Two of her sons are recruited by the evil and imperialistic Major Von Stomm. Still, the war seems light years away from Berle’s happy little village...at least until the postman comes bearing a black-bordered envelope that declares that BOTH of her sons had been killed. Before Bernle has proper time to grieve, Von Stomm barges into her house. Apparently Joseph, who has become successful and married, has joined the American army. Von Stomm sneers at the grieving mother and delivers one of the most chilling and frightfully evil things that I have encountered in a silent film, “What right have you to eat your country's food and burn your country's oil? Must I fight and starve for you -- you, the mother of a traitor?” A subordinate points out that she has already sacrificed two sons to the war effort. Von Stomm ignores him and snatches Bernle’s last son, the young Andreas, and orders him to the barracks to report for duty.
As fate would have it, Joseph and Andreas end up on opposing sides of the same battlefield. Fog envelops the killing fields. Men enter the no-man’s land and only silence, punctuated with occasional screams and cries for help, leave. In this infernal hell-scape, Andreas meets his doom. As he closes his eyes for the last time, he is embraced by Joseph. Of course, this kind of coincidence stretches all credulity. But Ford creates a world where such meetings are not only possible, but inevitable.
With the news of Andreas’ death swallowing Mother Bernle whole, the war ends. Joseph calls for her across the Atlantic and she comes to live with her new family. At first she is victimized by America’s immigration process. she arrives in New York City, ignorant of the language and terrified. Never before has she seen so many people. She is tossed asunder on a crowded subway and deposited alone and confused on the harsh city streets. She collapses on a street corner where she is rescued by a city cop who directs the frightened woman to Joseph’s house. Joseph and his wife, who had been searching for her, arrive home to find a bottle opened and a piece of cake missing. They find her in the living room where she has fallen asleep with her grandson on her lap, clutching her breast. Slowly she wakes. She stares into the eyes of her last son and knows...she is home.
For such an emotional and melodramatic film, Ford shows admirable and almost other-worldly restraint. It prophesies the film Make Way For Tomorrow (1937) in its use of subtlety in the elderly characters’ acting. One reviewer pointed out that Mother Bernle never really cried, even when she learns that her sons are dead. Instead, the emotion is all in the performance, the movement of the hands, the expressions on the face. While the story does rely on title cards to promote the plot, the emotional toll of the story is all expressed clearly through how the actors react. If Four Sons had been released a year later, Margaret Mann, the actress who played Mother Bernle, would have been a shoe-in to win the first Academy Award for Best Actress.
It has been said of Ford that “politically and socially, [he] may possibly best [be] described as a populist; emotionally as a sentimentalist.” Ford was never concerned with politics in his films. Instead, of chief concern were the people. Yes, Four Sons does have a strong pro-American message. But Ford’s focus is on the poor mother who nearly lost her entire family. It is the loss, not the salvation, that makes Four Sons a masterpiece.
I will be posting this film in its entirety on this blog's youtube channel later today.