Wednesday, March 2, 2016


This 1938 picture is one of the more obscure items in John Ford's filmography -- little known, I suspect, before its DVD release as part of the monumental Ford at Fox collection. That may be because it's an atypical Ford film, more Anglophile than Irish. I suspect it's also because the film's message became politically incorrect very soon after it was released. Based on a Cosmopolitan magazine serial by David Garth, from the days when that magazine was far more literary than it is today, the globetrotting story reflects a then-popular suspicion that the world's wars could largely be blamed on the world's "merchants of death," the arms and munitions manufacturers. You initially expect something reminiscent of The Four Feathers as the sons of the disgraced Col. Loring Leigh (C. Aubrey Smith) reunite to restore his good name after his own attempt to do so is aborted by murder. Leigh is framed for a battlefield blunder in India, when the real question is how did the insurgents he fought get up-to-date firearms. His sons -- barrister George Sanders, diplomat Richard Greene, aviator David Niven and student William Henry -- aided by the diplomat's American girlfriend (top-billed Loretta Young) split up to pick up the pieces of the mystery, two brothers going to India, the other two to South America, where a revolution is brewing. The South American section is the best part of the picture, combining the brutal spectacle of a revolution betrayed and slaughtered and the introduction of the merchant of death himself (Alan Hale Sr.) Hale rarely played villains but when he did so his normally affable manner only seemed to make the bad guys more cunningly dangerous. There's a great suspenseful scene, just after we've seen him throw a client to the wolves, in which he has to b.s. his way through an encounter with Greene and Niven. He excuses himself to fetch something out of his closet. Inside the closet is a servant who silently hands him a pistol and grabs one for himself. Hale pockets the gun and returns to show his guests some of the benign rubber product his perfectly innocent firm manufactures in the region. If anyone says something wrong our good guys, as yet none the wiser about Hale's character, are sure to be killed. Ford and his writers maintain the tension while leavening it with comedy as Niven, playing a bit of a ninny, grows fascinated with Hale's rubber toys. A different kind of tension develops as our heroes' suspicions turn toward another arms manufacturer who happens to be the Loretta Young character's father. Finally, in true thriller fashion -- this film looks forward to the later international spy genre in some ways -- the reunited brothers raid the villain's yacht off the Egyptian coast. Four Men is neither a characteristic nor canonical John Ford picture, but it shows him an expert studio craftsman earning his keep by making an often-exciting and just about always entertaining movie.

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