1920s, 2/4, Adventure, John Ford, Review

The Black Watch

The Black Watch (1929) - IMDb

#70 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.

I find the birth of sound to be the most fascinating point in movie history. Things like widescreen cinematography and color eventually ended up dominating cinema after their introduction, but those were slow and gradual processes. Simplified, movies went from silent in 1928 to sound in 1929. It was a sea change and it happened all at once. John Ford had included some sound in a couple of previous silent films (notably Riley the Cop), and his first full talkie, a short film called Napoleon’s Barber, is lost. That leaves The Black Watch as his first feature length talkie, and it’s obvious that even a practiced hand like Ford was lost in this strange new world. The new technology and its inherent limitations didn’t kill the film completely, but they killed parts of it for sure.

The film starts in England at a dinner for a Scottish regiment, the titular Black Watch, on the eve of their departure for France at the beginning of World War I. The field marshal (David Torrence) sends word that Captain King (Victor McLaglen) should report at once. In the earliest sign that the film has done sound all wrong, the field marshal very slowly explains the situation in India that he needs King to go and help solve. The dialogue is told in small chunks (think William Shatner when he struggled to remember his lines, but worse) with massive airs. For what essentially amounts to an exposition dump, this is painful to listen to.

From what I’ve read, Ford had no idea how to direct with sound. I mean, who did? It was brand new. He went with what he knew, though, and he seems to have been whispering the lines to his actors. They seem to be hearing half a sentence of dialogue from their director, speaking it, and then waiting another couple of seconds for another line. It’s stilted, unnatural, and honestly hard to listen to. I don’t demand realism all the time from movies, but this is the kind of unrealism that is a distraction with no narrative or cinematic purpose. If this were limited to this particular scene, it would be of limited concern. However, it’s most dialogue scenes (not all), and, most damagingly, in every scene that Myrna Loy is in.

Alright, so the mission King is on is to infiltrate the army of hill people led by the mysterious female figure, held up like a goddess amongst her followers, Yasmani (Loy). King was selected because he grew up in the area while his father was stationed there, and he knows the local languages (which he never speaks, of course). He quickly meets up with an Indian officer, Mohammed Khan (Mitchell Lewis), whom King knows from his youth, and they concoct a plan with the local English officers. King is to look like he drunkenly kills a fellow officer and goes on the run, hopefully welcomed into the open arms of Yasmani.

It works, and then we get the dialogue completely undermining everything. When you have really quick and deeply felt romances in film, you have to really sell it to the audience. This is the mystical “chemistry” that pairs like Bogart and Bacall had in To Have and Have Not. I could not begin to tell you if McLaglen and Loy had chemistry, though, because literally every single line of dialogue between them is fed to them by Ford. It’s two actors, taking breaths between every half line of dialogue, and speaking with great import. It becomes outright silly after a while, and it prevents any kind of emotional engagement with the scene.

The movie’s not worthless, though. There are small dialogue scenes that are fine (like when King and the officer he was to have killed explain the situation to each other), and the film is often simply great to look at. It was very common in the early days of sound to not film everything with sound. You filmed with silent cameras a lot, preserving the freedom of motion and framing that you no longer got from needing to work inside a glass box. There’s a particular shot, showing the Black Watch marching down a dark road in Flanders, that’s absolutely gorgeous. There’s also a moment where Yasmani shows the Black Watch to King through a crystal ball, and the framing is perfect so that King’s younger brother fills the bottom left of the frame while King fills the top right.

The adventure elements are also fairly solid with an ending that actually engages with the situation seriously enough to be believable and has some pretty good action beats. The stuff about men dying on the battlefields of World War I in France is earnestly presented even if it ends up feeling like extra material not entirely necessary for the film.

So, the performances are largely awful (Ford’s fault), but it’s otherwise a thinly engaging adventure film that often looks great. This is kind of what I expected from an established director’s first talkie. There’s craft still there, but Ford was well within the learning curve of the new technology in a way that made the film hard to watch at times. Still, I’ve seen worse.

Rating: 2/4


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