"The most eloquent speech this country’s ever given" is a line of Golden Star Mothers heading overseas to their sons' graves, John Ford’s early masterpiece follows one from the farm to Argonne and back. Rural life is a tableau of gnarled trees and powdered moonlight, a quite Germanic Arkansas in which the pioneer widow (Henrietta Crosman) watches witheringly as her son (Norman Foster) sneaks off at night. (The family dynamics are cogently sketched as the old woman forcefully saws a log into pieces, a gesture humorously reflected later when she snaps a baguette over her knee.) The barbershop doubles as a draft registration office in curious anticipation of Judge Priest, she signs up the lad to separate him from his pregnant sweetheart (Marian Nixon) and Ford dissolves to a charging locomotive packed with doughboys. A minute and a half in the trenches is enough to sum up the waste of war, back home the mother is shuddered awake by a thunderstorm in one of the film’s many Griffithian flashes. Mater monstruosa, mater dolorosa, "ten years of remembering to forget" brought to an end by a trip to La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu. (What can the French officer say to the bereft visitors? "The altar of freedom is wet with tears...") Ford’s matriarchs in The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley (to say nothing of Cocteau’s in Les Parents Terribles) descend from Crosman’s remarkable ogress, a hillbilly Hecuba who buries her own grief until it hits her like lightning in the midst of Parisian festivities. Her conflict is resurrected into that of the suicidal youth (Maurice Murphy) on the edge of the bridge, and resolved in the shunned grandson embraced at last. The torn portrait pieced together, the emotional gaze directed straight into the camera (cp. Dreyer's Prästänkan), an entire screen full of Fordian graves—the absurdity of heroism and the maternal bond that strangulates, absolutely piercing visions from a director somehow remembered as a well of patriotism and sentimentality. Cinematography by George Schneiderman. With Heather Angel, Lucille La Verne, Robert Warwick, Charley Grapewin, and Hedda Hopper. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce