Three Faces West (1940)

  • Year: 1940
  • Released: 03 Jul 1940
  • Country: United States
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  • Available in: 720p, 1080p,
  • Language: English
  • MPA Rating: Approved
  • Genre: Adventure, Drama, Romance
  • Runtime: 79 min
  • Writer: F. Hugh Herbert, Joseph Moncure March, Samuel Ornitz
  • Director: Bernard Vorhaus
  • Cast: John Wayne, Sigrid Gurie, Charles Coburn
  • Keywords: surgeon, oregon, usa, dust bowl,
34% – Critics
34% – Audience

Three Faces West Photos

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Three Faces West Movie Reviews

“It is not easy to know where loyalty ends and love begins.”

This is really quite a remarkable picture, reminiscent more of the Warners Brothers films of the era than something Republic Pictures might have put out. Nominally it’s considered a Western (I saw it today on the Encore Western Channel), but the only connection to that genre it has would be it’s setting, as itinerant farm workers battle Dust Bowl situations in their settled home land only to be forced to move once again when conditions conspire against them. Leading the charge as it were, is John Wayne in a role that has him confronting the elements, along with a hostile contingent that opposes his choice of destination (Oregon) for the sunny climes of California. The story is wrapped around a budding romance between Wayne’s character, and that of Sigrid Gurie as Leni Braun, daughter of an Austrian refugee, both of whom escaped the rise of Naziism in 1940’s Europe. The story is complicated even further when it’s discovered that Leni’s former fiancé (Roland Varno), presumed dead the past two years, resurfaces to place his claim on Leni’s heart once again.

That last aspect of the picture just mentioned is somewhat troubling when one considers the initial premise of the story. Dr. Eric Von Scherer (Varno) presumably gave his life to help the Braun’s escape from tyranny to the United States under a sanctuary program for refugee doctors. He turns up in the latter part of the picture attempting to convince the Braun’s that life now under the Reich would be highly advantageous if they returned to Europe. The disconnect blows by pretty quickly, but if you know anything about history, the scene will have you going ‘huh?’ more than once before it’s over. However it leads directly to Leni and John Phillips (Wayne) reconciling their feelings for each other, thereby allowing the movie to close on the Duke and his girl exchanging nuptials for the happy ending.

Followers of John Wayne’s early films will note that this was one of the rare occasions that you got to catch the up and coming legend in a jacket and tie! I’ve only seen that once before in 1933’s “His Private Secretary”. Once in his element though, Wayne’s character is pretty much as you would recall him from his early Lone Star and Republic Days, dressed in pioneer attire and ruggedly individualistic. The romance with Sigrid Gurie’s character plays a lot more emotionally than virtually all of his prior pictures, and it’s rather intriguing to see him remain stoic through the heart wrenching scenes. Gurie was quite convincing as the torn lover between a loyal past and a bright future; her decision was made somewhat easier by the developments described earlier.

One has to assume that the title of the movie represents Wayne’s character along with the Braun’s, otherwise it doesn’t make much sense, though that didn’t stop the naming of dozens of era pictures with no connection to their title. I managed to catch this one today on Encore Western’s self proclaimed ‘John Wayne 101’ celebration in honor of his 101st birthday. I don’t know if the film is commercially available, but it would be worth your while to scour the cable channels for this listing if you’re a Wayne fan. It steps just outside of the early mainstream for The Duke, and offers a more introspective character than one is used to seeing in his earlier films.

A surprising type of film for the Duke.

Well, if this isn’t one of the more unusual films for John Wayne, I don’t know what is! The film begins with a radio program in America where the host is encouraging small American towns to sort of ‘adopt’ doctors displaced by the war in Europe. While the US would not enter the war officially until almost 1942, this film had a very anti-Nazi tone–something new to Hollywood films.

One of the doctors is Charles Coburn who plays an Austrian (!) and he has a daughter who is a nurse (Sigrid Gurie). They are offered a job in North Dakota and when they arrive they find that it is nothing but dust and misery. The two want to leave immediately, but the townspeople need them so much that they agree to stay. However, in the meantime two important things happen. First, the dust problem becomes so severe that the town decides to relocate to Oregon. Second, Sigrid falls in love with John Wayne. While her love for Wayne is no surprise, their impending marriage is scuttled when they learn that her long-dead fiancé is actually alive and coming to America. It seems that the Nazis didn’t kill him after all. So we are facing two dilemmas. How to get everyone in town to move en masse to Oregon (especially when there are a couple hot-heads in the group) and how will Wayne and Gurie be able to marry? Tune in and see.

I liked this film a lot more than I expected–much of it because of the historical aspects of it. Other than THE GRAPES OF WRATH and IT’S A GIFT (to a lesser extent), I can’t think of any films that talked about the dust bowl years. And it was nice, also, because THE GRAPES OF WRATH offer a view that is a bit biased–as Steinbeck was trying to make more of a political statement in his writings (so the true historical nature of the Joads are sensationalized quite a bit). Here, it’s a more optimistic view of this upheaval. Additionally, it was a nice change of pace for Wayne–who before this had done mostly Westerns. Overall, a surprisingly good film.

PS–In a rather poorly done scene, a US Department of Agriculture representative is talking to Wayne and he points to the map where supposedly Wayne’s town in North Dakota is located. The pointer actually appears to be about 1000 miles off!!

Very New Dealish for the Duke

Viennese surgeon Charles Coburn and daughter Sigrid Gurie arrive in America and are placed in a rural area of Oklahoma. They stay in a large old house with John Wayne and Spencer Charters. Pretty soon, despite Gurie’s homesickness, they are involved in the social and political life in the area.

This is the famous Oklahoma dust bowl era when drought and poor cultivation practices brought about a drying up of once fertile farm land. Wayne and the other farmers do their best to save the land, but in the end except a government offer to homestead new farm land created by a dam built in Oregon, I presume on the Columbia River or one of its tributaries.

Gurie of course falls big time for the Duke. But she hears that Roland Varno who saved them from the Nazis and who she thought dead is still alive. Wayne of course leads a modern day wagon train to Oregon with automobiles instead of Conestoga wagons. He’s got his own problems with Trevor Bardette, another farmer who’s constantly trying to undermine his leadership.

23 years later John Wayne made McLintock which is more a serious statement of his conservative political and economic philosophy than one realizes. In Three Faces West we have him accepting a government program’s help, albeit a self help type program. The film though is couched in terms good enough to satisfy any free marketeer.

One thing I could not understand. Roland Varno purportedly risked his life to save Gurie and Coburn from the Nazis. But when both of them meet up with Varno in San Francisco, he’s now a big time Nazi supporter and wants to take them back to Vienna to aid in his new cause. They are taken aback and walk right out on him.

I’m somewhat taken aback myself. For the life of me I don’t understand Varno’s about face. The script gives us no explanation. It’s a big hole in the plot.

Three Faces West also labors under the handicap of coming out in the same year as The Grapes of Wrath. A much better film about the dust bowl and its economic effects.