This could have used an extra hour of screen time. John Ford’s Four Sons, adapted from the story “Grandmother Bernle Learns Her Letters” by I.A.R. Wylie, tells a far larger story than its 96-minute runtime holds well, but the heart of it is so warm and endearing that by the movie’s final twenty minutes it had won me over. I can easily see why it would have been very popular back in 1928. Dealing with the Great War, the immigrant experience, and ending with heartfelt touches while pushing a pro-American message, it has a lot of what made popular silent film popular at the time.
In a bit of a twist, Ford tells a story of the Old World in Bavaria, Germany rather than his ancestral Ireland. Little Mother Bernle (Margaret Mann) is the proud mother of four adult sons. Franz (Ralph Bushman) is an officer in the German military, Andreas (George Meeker) is a shepherd, Johann (Charles Morton) is a fun-loving young man, and Joseph has dreams of going to America. The family is a happy, close family, well-loved in their small Bavarian town. The only people who don’t seem to love them are the military personnel stationed in the town. Everyone else is happy to suddenly arrive at the Bernle house and celebrate Mother Bernle’s birthday. This is all fine, perhaps a bit overlong, but it’s a nice introduction to the world and characters.
Joseph leaves for America, and very soon afterwards the Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated and World War I breaks out. Reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front, the townspeople are overjoyed at the outbreak of conflict with young men eagerly joining up to fight the fight that will be over by Christmas. Franz and Johann (newly joined into the military) march off to war with the rest, but word soon comes to Mother Bernle that two of her four sons have died in the opening battles of the war. This is where I really feel like the movie needs its extra hour. It goes, tonally, whole hog into the muck of World War I, especially when Andreas gets forced into the army by the local military officer in retribution for Joseph living in America and “supporting” the enemy. I’ll just take a moment here to say that Four Sons is the best looking movie Ford had made up to this point. There’s intelligence around framing, composition, and lighting that helps sell moments and their emotional reality, one of the best moments being when Mother Bernle is desperately clinging to Andreas’ hand out of a train car window, Ford using the entire vertical space of the frame to tell the emotional moment visually, the two characters’ fingers desperately clinging together until the last moment.
Meanwhile, in America, Joseph quickly moves upward, earning enough as a stock boy to buy the little shop he works at in New York, soon marrying and having a son. He’s decided to become full-American, so when his German born assistant rails about the war while working, Joseph chastises him, reminding him that America is neutral. When America joins the fight, so does Joseph. He’s off to fight.
And then we get the movie’s relatively short timeframe rearing its ugly head. There’s contrivance aplenty when Joseph hides behind a wall by No Man’s Land, hears the calling of a German voice calling for his “Little Mother”, and Joseph taking water to his own dying brother on the battlefield. I get it, but this is pretty much the extent of our direct view into battlefield life, and it’s dedicated to a moment that beggars belief. It ends up feeling false precisely because so little time is dedicated to it. Having this central section be significantly longer as we watch the two brothers get closer together over the course of some period of time (weeks, perhaps) might have given the moment the feeling of tragic inevitability it was obviously shooting for.
The war comes to an end (seemingly less than half an hour after it started, also evidence that this movie should have been longer), and news of Andreas’ death has not reached Mother Bernle. The postman (Albert Gran) has delivered the black bordered letters for her two other sons before, and he’s loathe to deliver news of the third. The scene where Mother Bernle receives this news is another concentrated instance of Ford’s increasing command of the frame, and it’s a strongly emotional scene. And then there’s a stark tonal shift when we suddenly cut to jaunty music as Joseph returns home to New York. It’s a weird moment to go from deep sadness to jaunty and amusing little scene as Joseph finds that his store has flourished under his wife’s management. It was here where I was really beginning to feel like the movie was just too uneven for my tastes.
And then it really gains focus, and it’s significantly lighter than the middle act. Joseph, at the pleading of his son, decides to send for Mother Bernle and bring her to America, but Mother Bernle is illiterate. She’ll need to learn her letters to be admitted. The ending is about her doing just that while going to America and encountering the kindly bureaucracy at Ellis Island. The pure goodness of Mother Bernle eventually finding her way home with her never before seen grandson falling asleep in her lap is just so endearing that I simply couldn’t resist it by the end.
Yeah, the movie’s uneven. It really is. However, I ended up enjoying it on the whole by the end. In terms of straight production, it’s probably the best movie Ford had made up to this point. It ends up between genres a bit, and that ends up creating contrivance where it shouldn’t be as well as some tonal jumps that end up feeling more jarring than they should be. However, the heart of the film is Mother Bernle, and by the end, it’s easy to forgive some of the film’s earlier issues and just be happy to see Mother Bernle find some peace after the ravage of war tore her family apart.