Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Four Sons

Made under the heavy influence of German Expressionism and especially the recently emigrated F.W. Murnau, John Ford's Four Sons represents one great director being deeply affected by the work of another, letting the spirit of Murnau's cinema infiltrate and blend with Ford's own still-developing style. Murnau had just made Sunrise at Ford's studio, Fox, and Ford shot parts of his film on leftover sets from Murnau's classic. Four Sons opens in a small German village, where the postman (Albert Gran), immediately seen in the first shot, strongly recalls Emil Jannings' mustachioed doorman from Murnau's The Last Laugh. Ford follows the postman in a graceful tracking shot that winds around the village, occasionally pausing for the man to exchange friendly banter with people he meets along the way, or for a wagon loaded with hay to cross the frame. This lengthy traveling shot instantly establishes the atmosphere of this comfortable, happy little town, where everyone knows everyone else, children gleefully scamper underfoot, and there's a warm communal vibe to this place and its people. In this idyllic small town, the elderly Mother Bernle (Margaret Mann) proudly raises her four sons, who love and idolize her with the characteristic Fordian adoration for parents.

Indeed, though this film takes place primarily in Germany and draws on the influence of Murnau, its affectionate, sentimental depiction of family life amid a tightly knit community is purely Fordian, a precursor to his Irish films like How Green Was My Valley. The domestic bliss of the Bernle family is soon shattered, though, as the arrival of World War I casts a pall over their family and their town. One of the four sons, Joseph (James Hall), has already departed for America, where he's done well with his own restaurant and his own happy family. Two more of the sons are sent off to war in the German army, leaving behind only the youngest son, Andreas (George Meeker), to stay home with his mother. The film is remarkably even-handed in its depiction of war and patriotism. The only real villain here is the German major Von Stomm (Earle Fox), a caricature of Prussian rigidity and sneering evil, but the rest of the German officers and soldiers are portrayed as ordinary, decent people fighting for their country. Ford takes care to never let Von Stomm's villainy overwhelm the picture: immediately after Von Stomm's vilest scene, when he forces Andreas to enlist in the army, another German officer kisses Mother Bernle's hand on the way out, as though acknowledging his disapproval of his superior's actions.

The film's plot basically piles up one tragedy after another, as the war claims one son after another from this family. In the end, only Joseph, who has gone to war in the army of his adopted country rather than for Germany, is left. Ford's sentiment can be overwhelming: several times throughout the film, Mother Bernle sits at her table and says a brief grace before eating with her sons, and each time the scene recurs this ritual becomes sadder and sadder, more and more tinged with loss, with the repeated composition calling attention to those missing from the table. The final time the scene appears, the table is empty except for Mother Bernle, and she imagines her four sons as ghostly presences, superimposed over their empty chairs; the image is unbearably sad, and unbearably maudlin.

Elsewhere, Ford's direction more economically conveys grief and tragedy without resorting to such forced sentimentality. The postman's delivery of letters with black borders, signifying a dead soldier, provide a heartbreaking shorthand for loss, and the postman, reluctant to be the bearer of such bad news, makes each step towards his destination seem like it takes tremendous effort. The second time he delivers this kind of letter to Mother Bernle, he appears in a deep focus shot through her window, while inside she kneels in front of the window, looking through a chest, preparing for the homecoming of a son who will never return. As the postman slowly approaches the house, framed by the window, she finally looks up, sees him, and freezes, immediately knowing what news he brings. Equally powerful is the shot of the mother watching as Andreas is inducted into the army; she watches at a window, then places her palm against the glass, as though raising her hand in a wave goodbye, an image that Ford fades into a shot of soldiers on the march.

The war itself is minimally conveyed with a foggy, bleak wasteland in which the soldiers crouch and hide. Ford mostly focuses on the faces of the soldiers in extreme closeups, streaked with dirt and sweat, their jaws clenched and their eyes furtive. Ford uses very few titles, only cutting in some minimal text when it's absolutely necessary; his visual style is extremely expressive, and generally no words are needed. The performances of the four Bernle sons are mostly overstated and overacted, but Mann delivers a rich, naturalistic performance as the loving, suffering mother, and there are numerous scenes that display Ford's feel for subtle gestural communication. In one scene, Joseph and his wife (June Collyer) chat while she holds their baby next to her head, creating a very resonant image of the happy family clustered around the child. While the couple is speaking, Joseph's wife casually kisses the baby's head while listening to her husband, a little gesture of tenderness that's easily missed but adds to the scene's touching depiction of domestic bliss.

The film's final act plods on a bit too long after the natural climax, with an extended and rather unnecessary sequence of Mother Bernle emigrating to America and struggling with US immigration laws at Ellis Island. These scenes lay on the pathos a bit too thick, even for a film that's already slathered in sentiment. Despite this over-long finale, Four Sons is a rich, evocatively shot melodrama that explores Ford's fascination with family, war and tragedy.


Sam Juliano said...

This is the one title left from the silent DVD set that I haven't yet seen, but it seems it bears some similarities to HANGMAN'S HOUSE which you reviewed here about two weeks ago. I am referring of course to the heavy influence of Murnau and German expressionism, even while standing as a precursor to films like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY with the family fabric. And I am not at all surprised that the sentiment can be overwhelming. It's Ford after all.

Marvelous review on an obviously vital early work.

Ed Howard said...

Yes, it's less gothic and strange than Hangman's House, but definitely has some commonality in terms of influences and style. It seems like a vital film for Ford's early development, and it's quite compelling on its own merits as well.