Sunday 29 March 2009

Three Faces West (1940)

Director: Bernard Vorhaus
Stars: John Wayne, Sigrid Gurie and Charles Coburn

The title may suggest a western, which would be hardly surprising given that the lead is John Wayne. However this is 1940, wartime for much of Europe and not far from it for the United States, and the Duke was working for Republic Pictures. We see his fellow stars first, at a radio broadcast called We the People, our first hint that this is a propaganda picture, albeit a subtle one. We the People is introducing a number of refugee doctors forced out of Europe who need somewhere to go. They're prize catches, given that they are often high powered names willing to work for nothing but the cost of living and a place to stay.

One of them is Dr Karl Braun of Vienna, a world renowned specialist, and he and his daughter Leni are quickly requested by telegram to head clear across the continent to a small dustbowl town in North Dakota called Ashville Forks. Naturally it's the Duke doing the requesting, naturally Leni is a beautiful young lady and naturally it doesn't take long for the romance to kick in. Leni was gay when Vienna was gay and she plays Brahms like a kiss, so it can't be too surprising to find that the dustbowl is hardly what she expected. They're tired enough to stay the night, especially after doing the rounds of the emergency patients before they even see their new home, but they want out first thing in the morning.

John Wayne is John Phillips, a good all-American man and the unofficial leader of his community. He's a good part of the reason that the Brauns stay in Ashville Forks, though Dr Braun's inner drive to heal people isn't to be discounted either. Still, the town is in terrible shape, not just because of their lack of a resident doctor but because Mother Nature has it in form them too. The wind howls, the dust flies every which where and the tumbleweeds bounce around like there's no tomorrow. The townsfolk are good people and they're hard workers; Phillips's knowledge and leadership has helped the farmers to survive as long as they have. Yet there's precious little rain, the storms get worse and the government has effectively written off their land.

So off they go to Oregon where they're promised good land that they can own and farm. Of course, Phillips gets to lead the trek, which is a long 1,500 miles of rough terrain, through mountains and through desert. Now the folks from Ashville Forks are refugees themselves and the Brauns becomes the experts who can offer their own advice and direction. By this time John Phillips and Leni Braun are engaged to be married, but the romantic subplot isn't as straight forward as it might seem. In Leni's heart is a former fiancé called Eric, a man who enabled the Braun's escape from the Nazis and saved their lives in the process, but who is supposedly dead. A letter proves otherwise and we find a love triangle, but anyone who doesn't expect the Duke to win all these battles is nuts.

Wayne is pretty good here though he falters a little on the long speeches. This is early in his A list career, a year after Stagecoach made his career, and he was very much on the rise. He's believable as the leader of his community, as the romantic lead and as the role he treasured most: as the epitome of the hard working American, the image of his country. There's not a heck of a lot for him to do though and the film runs through its short length without much passion. Sigrid Gurie is a capable love interest and Trevor Bardette is a capable naysayer. It's the doctors who shine brightest though: Charles Coburn is excellent as Dr Braun, the humble refugee living well below the standards he's used to, but he's outshone by Spencer Charters as the irascible vet who is effectively Wayne's sidekick in the way that Walter Brennan so often was. It's a routine film but a decent enough one.

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