You can do subtlety in silent film, but it requires a certain attention to specific moments that go well beyond what we normally expect from sound films. You need to focus down with a small scope and bring out details that are harder to do without some level of explanation that can happen through dialogue or even tone of voice. John Ford’s first silent feature length film is not at all interested in subtlety. This is a land war in the West with very clear good guys, bad guys, and stakes. This is meat and potatoes Hollywood filmmaking from when the medium was still brand new. Having pretty much committed fraud in order to get the budget from the studio for a feature length film instead of a short (by saying their shot footage had been destroyed when it was all fine), the young Ford built something that almost feels like a whole story around what had surely been the central conflict. The ending almost makes the film, but only almost.
It’s pretty obvious looking at the final product that Ford and George Hively, his screenwriter, didn’t have the time or inclination to figuring out how to expand the film into feature length in the most elegant of ways. It feels like most of the added footage came in the first half. There are the standard scenes introducing our small hero family of farmers, Sweet Water Sims (George Burrell) and his two children Joan (Molly Malone) and Ted (Ted Brooks), the evil rancher who wants to kick them off the land by cutting off their supply to water, Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), the young man who works for Flint who loves Joan, Danny Morgan (Hoot Gibson), and the gunslinger hired by Thunder to chase them off, Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey). It’s the sort of quick and dirty series of introductions you would expect from a silent film. It’s all archetypes through and through. The kindly old man with his innocent adult children. The rancher with a twirling evil mustache. The handsome gunslinger. It’s all there in proto form.
I have little problem with this, but the issues come up around Cheyenne Harry. There’s a long section where he hangs out in the local tavern with another rancher, and it’s just a really long scene that far outstays its welcome as they get drunk and into a fight. It really feels like it’s there for padding. There’s also a fair amount of unclear storytelling going on to muddy things up in the first half hour, things like the largely unexplained movements of a gang led by Black-Eye Pete (Milton Brown).
I was kind of down on the film a bit until about the halfway point when things began to turn around. Ted goes to get some water from the creek now denied him and his family, and one of Flint’s men shoots him dead. Sweet Water and Joan, along with Danny, reclaim the body and take him back just as Harry is coming around to do the work he’s meant to do. Seeing Ted dead, having been shot in the back, does something to Harry. He has a sense of honor, and the idea of shooting a man in the back turns his stomach so much that he turns on his employer and decides to help the farmers in their conflict with the ranchers. I should also note, that I’m pretty sure Ted gets shot in the stomach, but the “shot in the back” thing may be more figurative than literal.
Anyway, this is when the pieces begin to come together at rapid pace. Joan runs around to all the farmers to prepare for the oncoming attack that Danny’s heard about. Harry leads the men in their defense. The ranchers send their men, and a giant shootout commences. This is really bravura filmmaking, this extended fight. There’s a lot going on, and Ford expertly crisscrosses between the action inside the central building, outside as the ranchers’ men encircle the place firing inside, and the sudden appearance of Black-Eye Pete to help save the day. This is really fun stuff.
And then the movie decides to have a love triangle in its final ten minutes, and it’s a really weird thing to insert at the end of a movie that doesn’t really work. Joan wants to love Harry, and Sweet Water wants Harry to marry Joan, but Harry is unsure if he should. And then there’s Danny who’s been loving Joan the whole movie who sort of just gets cast aside.
As the first John Ford film, knowing enough of the highlights of his filmography to come, this has some interesting moments that will reappear in later films. The very first shot of his very first feature length film is of a cowboy, iconically framed on a hillside with a herd of cattle behind him is just the greatest introduction to the career to come. Harry deciding whether he can settle down to far, leaving behind the violent life behind feels like what’s going to happen to John Wayne, to a certain subtler extent, in The Searchers.
No, I don’t think it works overall. The last minute love triangle along with the muddled first half hour makes this less than what it could have been. However, it’s almost there with an obvious technical talent working with archetype and action in ways that he would only refine later.