“Come along my three bad men. Let’s go make camp.”
I say this time again whenever I write up a western film and I will say it again: I am not a huge fan of westerns. When I watch a western there has to be an actor or actress I really like in it or the director is someone I like as well. The 1926 silent film 3 Bad Men had both of my preferences with actor George O’Brien playing one of the lead parts and it was directed by John Ford.
The story takes place in the 1870s when President Grant opened up the west. Both Americans and immigrants came from their crowded cities to settle in wide open spaces breathe fresh air. At a campsite a man finds gold in the mountains. Dan O’Malley (O’Brien) is one of the waves of immigrants seeking his own parcel of land. While out in the prairies traveling with hundreds of others Dan comes across a young woman named Lee Carlton (Olive Borden) and her father. Their wagon lost its wheel and Dan comes around to help them. When he is done he flirts with Lee a little bit but pulls away when she awaits his kiss.
Rewards circulate throughout the small established Midwestern towns for three men named Bull Stanley, Spade Allen, and Mike Costigan for holdups and robbery and horse stealing. They watch from a hilltop as the wagons and men on horses pass by below. Bull rides up to a man and asks where they are all heading. The man replies they are heading to the Dakotas to find gold. Bull says there is a man there “jus’ as yeller” he is looking for.
The town of Custer is controlled by the sheriff Layne Hunter. Layne is not a good sheriff. He has a gang of men that go around intimidating people and causing trouble. A young woman named Millie is in love with him and wants to marry him when a minister arrives in town. Layne gives her a dirty look and closes the window they were speaking through on her. News is brought to Layne that someone out in the prairie has a few thorough bread racing horses. He tells his men to go get the horses.
Still on the hilltop Bull, Spade, and Mike see the thorough breads. As they are heading down to capture the horses they see another gang come in. When they get to the wagon a man is dead on the ground and Bull goes to shoot the other person. The other person takes off their hat and it is Lee. Bull cannot shoot her after that especially when she begins to cry into his chest. The three men take Lee into town as part of their group. Layne sees Lee getting water from a trough and starts hitting on her. Bull immediately gets off the wagon and comes between Lee and Layne. He tells the sheriff that Lee is with his group and if has anything to say to her he has to go through him. Layne plans to deal with the three men in his own way since Bull got in his way with Lee. When they are done setting up camp Lee tells the three men they can work for her but she cannot pay them until she gets her land. Bull steps up and says they will work for her for nothing. The next morning Layne comes looking for Lee. She does not like him very much. In his tent, Bull takes out a letter from his sister that says she followed the man she loved. His sister is Millie.
Bull comes to think that the three of them are no good for Lee after he sees her playing with a baby. He wants to find her a nice man to marry so he sends Spade and Mike out to find one. Spade and Mike go to the local dive to find a man. They find a guy but he is definitely not right for Lee. Dan comes into town and right into the bar. Millie is sitting in a bar with a man that Layne knows. Bull also comes into the bar. Millie sees her brother and runs away from the man. Dan is standing on the stairs when Millie rushes past him. The man chases after her but Dan stops him. Bull helps Dan fight off all the others who joined in the fight. Outside the dive Bull takes a look at Dan and invites him back to their camp asking him if he wants a job. Dan and Lee are surprised to see each other. He asks about her father and she tells him what happened. This time standing alone they kiss.
Layne sends one of his men to get out of an old man where the gold is. The old man is hurt but before he passes he gives the man with the gold on it to Bull and everyone. Bull tells Layne he has had enough of him. The following day a revolt is planned against Layne and his men with Bull the leader. Layne lets lawlessness rule. He lets his men burn the church down where the women are praying with the minister and he even goes along with them. Millie hears the plan and runs to the church to warn everyone. The minister manages to get out of the church and tries to plead with the men to stop. Millie comes running out toward the minister and catches the bullet in her back. She cries out for her brother. Bull is in the church getting the other out when he hears her. Bull’s men chase away Layne’s men and rescue everyone in the church including Lee who had been there. As Millie lies dying Bull asks her who the man was who took her away. At that moment Layne walks in and Millie screams. Bull chases after him but does not catch him. When Bull returns Millie has died.
The great race for land is the following day at twelve o’clock. At twelve on the dot Bull, Lee, Mike, Spade, and Dan dash off for their land. Layne and his men watch the rush and he tells his man to wait to see where Bull and the rest stop and they will catch up to them. The Carlton group, as they are known as, is in the lead. They have to go through a pass to get to the land they want. Bull, Mike, and Spade tell Dan and Lee to go on ahead they will meet them. The three bad men know that they have to try to hold off Layne and his men as long as they can. They pull cards and whoever has the highest card has to stay behind. Spade is a card cheat and he purposely picks the highest card. The next person to stay behind is Mike and he stays in a small storage house with gun powder inside and bullets flying around. Bull is the last one standing. Dan wants to help him fight but Bull wants him to go with Lee so he punches the poor Irishman out cold. Bull gets into a shoot out with Layne and his men and immediately gets wounded. He crawls behind a rock and from behind it he stares Layne down and they both shoot killing each other.
Years pass and Dan and Lee are settled on their farm with their son Stanley Costigan Allen O’Malley. Dan takes the baby over the three hats on the wall and tells his son that one day he will tell him the story of the best three bad men there ever was.
I really enjoyed 3 Bad Men. The story was not a usual western and I liked that a lot. I liked how the three criminals looked and sounded mean but when they met someone who cared for them they cared for that someone. Once you find out that Bull has a sister you know exactly why he cares for Lee like he does and you like him all the more for it. George O’Brien gets top billing but he is barely in the film. In his few scenes he was wonderful. This is the first time I have ever seen Olive Borden in a film and I thought she was good. O’Brien and Borden made a good pair. The film really belongs to Tom Santschi who played Bull. He was fantastic. Santschi looked like a tough criminal but one that could also have a heart and he played both sides of the character perfectly. John Ford’s direction is as always amazing. In the land rush scene you feel excited and tense as if you were actually in the race yourself. His camera angles were stunning in the land rush scene. The film does have its cheesy moments such as some over acting and the ending was good but it packed some cheese with it. Besides the cheesy moments 3 Bad Men is a very good silent film and a very good western with a lot of heart.