I’ve just spent a most enjoyable afternoon watching John Ford’s Four Sons (1928). It’s the story of Frau Bernle, a German mother whose sons go off to war – three are on the German side, but one has emigrated to America, so he’s on the winning team.
It presents a very interesting narrative of Germany in the war, beginning with a pre-war German village which has all the qualities of a John Ford American small town – there’s a fat and jolly postman, a pompous mayor, and comic friction between the inhabitants that does not outweigh a basic neighbourliness and friendliness. There are dirndls and lederhosen and it’s all pretty folksy. The only jarring note comes from an arrogant aristocratic officer von Stomm (with monocle and duelling scar). We’re left in no doubt that he and his fellow-Junkers are to blame when Der Tag arrives, and they delightedly toast the coming of war in champagne.
Two of the sons go to war. We see their leavetaking, but nothing more of them until the postman, no longer jolly, trails unwillingly through the village with a black-bordered letter for their mother. Both have been killed.
The son who has gone to America prospers and soon owns a delicatessen. When the U.S. enters the war it changes its name from German Delicatessen to Liberty Delicatessen, and, remembering insults from von Stomm, he joins the American Army.
We see wartime Germany – first with a crowd of nice village ladies making up Red Cross parcels, and later when the blockade has reduced food supplies and there is not enough food to go round. The presentation of ordinary Germans remains very sympathetic – but that arrogant von Stomm forces the youngest son to enlist.
Joseph (the naturalised American) arrives at the battlefront – shown as misty ruins, more evocative than accurate, I suspect. Then, in the scene pictured above, he hears someone calling “Mutterchen” from No Man’s Land. He explains the meaning of the word to his English speaking buddy, who says thoughtfully, “…I guess those fellows have mothers too.”
Joseph goes to investigate, and finds his brother, in a scene of high melodrama.
At the Armistice we see the village damaged, but thankful it is over. The soldiers and members of the community mutiny against von Stomm, and it is they, not the Allies, who get rid of Junkerdom once and for all (they hope). In a while the village has returned to the sheer jollity of the beginning.
A couple of years before the film of All Quiet on the Western Front, this movie is already stating that the Germans are much like ourselves, and the war only happened because they were badly led. In fact, this portrays the German community as more innocent than All Quiet does. In that film, an official of the community, the schoolmaster, incites the boys to war. In Four Sons the schoolmaster is an unworldly innocent with his nose in a book, and only the aristocrat is blameful.
One can see how this film’s message would be popular in 1928 – it’s a plea for harmony between American communities, and a statement that German-Americans were not to blame for the War. It’s adapted from a Saturday Evening Post story –“Grandma Bernle Learns Her Letters” – by I.A.R.Wylie, who also provided the basis for Ford’s Pigrimage, another plea for reconciliation (and an even better film).
It’s beautifully made, despite some resounding cliches. By 1928 the best directors had achieved a marvellous narrative skill; it’s remarkable how few captions this film needs. I got it as part of a Ford box-set. A purist commenting on the IMDB doesn’t like the DVD because it only has a new score, not the original. I see his point, but this didn’t detract from my pleasure.
Trivia: The part of a Captain was played by the Archduke Leopold of Austria. That’s not a name you see on many film credits.