Four Sons (1928), a late silent film from John Ford, clearly shows a heavy influence of the work of F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, who were at the time realizing William Fox’s dream of film as a true art form. The general tendency is to merely cite Murnau, but as we now know Murnau and Fox fed off each other’s ideas during this period—stylistically, if not necessarily thematically—so it’s unfair to lay it all on Murnau. It’s certainly Murnau’s city set from Sunrise (1927) that shows up here, and there’s little doubt that the postman (Albert Gran) is a manifestation of Murnau’s German star Emil Jannings from The Last Laugh (1924). This is Ford at his most visually baroque. The content, however—a German mother (Margaret Mann) and her four sons (James Hall, Charles Morton, Francis X. Bushman Jr., George Meeker), three of whom stay and fight for the Kaiser during WWI, one who emigrates to America—is pure Ford at his honest sentimental best.
That sentimentality—along with Ford’s taste for knockabout humor—is endemic to the filmmaker’s works. However, it’s also something of a downside, unless it happens to be to your taste. It’s of a special and limiting kind that never quite reaches the transcendent level found in the best of Murnau and Borzage. Nonetheless, Four Sons is one of the most visually and technically brilliant films Ford ever made. And when you compare it to other Ford silents like The Iron Horse (1924), the growth of the man as a filmmaker is nothing short of astonishing. It may not pay continuing dividends in the way that Borzage’s 7th Heaven (1927) and Murnau’s Sunrise do, but to never see it would be a huge chunk left out of film history.