In Burgendorf, Bavaria, Mother Bernle has four sons. Franz is in the army, Johann works at the forge, Andreas tends the sheep. Joseph is riding a hay wagon with a pretty girl when some of the hay falls off, landing on the fearsome Maj. Von Stomm. Joseph gets a slap from the major... The jovial postman has brought a letter from America. Joseph has the offer of a job in the States. But getting there is so expensive... It's Mother Bernle's birthday and most of the town gathers for the dancing. Mother gives Joseph the money she has secreted away. He leaves for the USA... It is "Der Tag", The Day when war is declared. Franz and Johann are excited about their new uniforms. But America is still neutral. Joseph runs the German-American Delicatessen with his new wife Annabelle. The reports of the first German battles with the Russians are good. So why does the postman carry a black-edged letter for Mother Bernle? When America does enter the war, Joseph enlists and meets his friend, the iceman ... Written by
When the cruel Major gets off the train with his monocle, there is a close-up of a reaction shot of another man with a monocle wearing a helmet, yet that man was not in the previous master shot, a real editing faux pas which disorients the observer. Mistakes like this show that often in the Twenties, the director had no input into the editing process, even a master auteur like John Ford. See more »
In the New York City sequences, which take place immediately after World War I (1919-1920), all of the women's fashions are strictly in the style of 1928, and all of the automobiles are of late 1920's design. See more »
Joseph - Her Son:
[to his mother]
Another letter from Fritz Kellner asking ne to come to America - It's a great country - America. Everyone is equal. If I only had the money.
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It would be interesting to know the history behind this late silent release, which was apparently quite popular at the time but now feels like a somewhat butchered edit of what was originally planned as a "Big Parade"-like epic--I have no idea if that's what actually happened to it, but that's how it plays. (It's possible that the talkie craze had escalated such between its green- lighting and completion that the studio decided a long, elaborate silent would only reduce the number of screenings/box office per day, and ordered the film severely cut.)
The cluttered story about a loving Bavarian small-town family and its fate during WW1 is staged with lavish care in virtually every shot, with beautiful lighting/camera-movement effects and frequent large numbers of extras and bit players involved. Yet the story itself hurtles along with so little time for detail and characterization that the emotional impact is blunted. Of the titular four sons, only the one who goes to America is given significant screen time, which greatly lessens the intended impact when siblings become combat casualties. So the primary focus falls on their widowed ma, a Mother Macree type (curiously, Ford made another film of that precise name the same year) whose selfless suffering over the years is portrayed gracefully, yet is a rather one-note and predictable characterization to base the entire film around. And the villainous German officers who send her boys off to their deaths are even more caricatured "Dirty Hun" types, complete with omnipresent sneers and monocles.
Scene by scene, "Four Sons" is directed in such a virtuoso fashion, and the production so ambitious in story arc and physical scale, that it feels like a leisurely, sentimental but masterly 2 1/2 hour epic that unfortunately somehow got reduced to a 90-minute highlight reel with little nuance or breathing room. That Ford could do better is clear from such films of the same era as "The Iron Horse" and "3 Bad Men." "Four Sons" is still well worth seeing, for its visual qualities in particular as well as numerous effective individual sequences. But it plays like the truncated shell of something that was originally planned as a much more expansive project.
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