Bucking Broadway / John Ford / 1917 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Photography; Romance scenes; Naturalistic acting
Side Effects: New York scenes

John Ford, one of America’s great directors, made at least 62 silent films between 1917 and 1927. Today, 85% of those are believed to be lost, and, judging by the quality of Bucking Broadway, that’s a real shame. Bucking Broadway, like many early Ford westerns, stars Harry Carey as the recurring character Cheyenne Harry. Cheyenne is often considered the first of Ford’s “good bad men,” dark and complex protagonists, though in this film the character is a tamer version of the archetypical western male hero. Here, Cheyenne is a cowboy engaged to the rancher’s daughter, and he’s much more willing to settle down than the traditional western man in film. Interestingly, he must actually become violent to save his fiancee from the “snake of a man” with whom she elopes, rather than choose to hang up his spurs for the love of a good woman.

Visually, the film is an absolute pleasure that presages Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach. His extraordinary eye for framing and shooting interior scenes (as well as the classical, scenic exteriors) is obvious even in this early film. Ford uses colored tints and moody, evocative lighting to beautiful poetic effect. The editing, too, is uncommonly effective as a storytelling tool. Take, for example, the inserts of Cheyenne’s nervous stance as he asks his boss for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The mountains, men and myths of the west suit Ford so well that when the film’s action is transported to New York, a bit of the spell is broken. While the change of scenery allows the director to juxtapose these ideals with those of city life, and sets up a satisfying action climax, the sense of space is never as strong in New York as it was in Wyoming. Films this old may scare away some modern viewers, but the rewards, both as an early example of Ford’s motifs, and as entertaining western in its own right, are too great to be overlooked.