During WWII, John Wayne had his share of mediocre flag-wavers, such as Bernard Vorhaus’ Three Faces West, about the fate of refugees escaping Nazi-dominated Austria.
One of the first Hollywood movies to deal with the new, timely subject, Three Faces West centers on Dr. Karl Braun (Charles Coburn) and his daughter Leni (Siogrid Gurie), who escape to the U.S. and settle in Asheville Forks, a community in the Dust Bowl.
Wayne portrays the farmers’ dogged leader, John Phillips, who is against deserting the land after the government had condemned it as “hopeless.”
However, when his plea is futile, he organizes the farmers’ departure for a better land in Oregon. And he persuades Leni, with whom he is now romantically involved, and her father to stay on despite the hardships.
The film’s worst element is its incredulous subplot. The doctor and his daughter take a detour to San Francisco when they learn that the daughter’s fiance was not killed by the Nazis in Austria, but has come to America. Leni’s fiancé, a German doctor named Eric Von Scherer (Roland Varno) turns out to be a loyal Nazi who wishes to take her back to the Reich to reap “the benefits and glory of its conquests.”
Another problem is the incoherent combination of the themes of the Midwest dustbowl and the flight from Anschluss.
Three Faces West inevitably suffered from comparisons with John Ford’s far superior classic, The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda, which deals with the same issue, though much more powerfully, and was released just a few months earlier.
Despite dramatic shortcomings, Wayne’s Phillips get to express his patriotic American ideology, when he tells Leni: “The way I figured out it, you stopped being a refugee when you come through Ellis Island. There’s no reason why you can’t start being a pioneer now–even in the Dust Bowl.”
Later on, Wayne complains to the Department of Agriculture, when it claims that Asheville Forks is doomed: “You can’t shove us around…We are not licked yet.”
Wayne shows nothing but contempt for the dissenters and potential deserters. When one of them suggests, “We can always stay here and go on relief,” Wayne’s response is short and terse: “That’s right, you can do that.”
In a modern-day version of an old wagon train, the town moves to Oregon under John Phillips’s leadership, not without differences of opinion and friction among the followers.
In the end, the doctor and his daughter rejoin the transplanted town in Oregon, where she marries Phillips.
This time around, even less discriminating audiences considered the movie to be too propagandistic. In 1940, the public’s reaction to the anti-Nazi movies was so mild that many studios, trying not to irritate the moviegoers, changed the original titles of their films about those themes. Hence, “The Man I Married” was initially titled “I Married a Nazi,” and the original title of “Three Faces West” was “The Refugee.”
This movie further crystallized some crucial elements in the Wayne’s screen persona, such as the habit of his heroes of solitary drinking, when he is angry, frustrated, or disappointed. Instead of showing his feelings in public, Wayne’s hero goes to a bar as a consolation for his bitterness or despair.
There is an funny scene, in which Phillips angrily knocks over a bartender (Dewey Robinson), who, amused by it, drives his car into the barn of his house.
- John Wayne as John Phillips
- Sigrid Gurie as Leni “Lenchen” Braun
- Charles Coburn as Dr. Karl Braun
- Spencer Charters as Dr. “Nunk” Atterbury
- Helen MacKellar as Mrs. Welles
- Roland Varno as Dr. Eric Von Scherer
- Sonny Bupp as Billy Welles
- Wade Boteler as Mr. Harris, Department of Agriculture Official
- Trevor Bardette as Clem Higgins
- Russell Simpson as Minister
- Charles Waldron as Dr. William Thorpe
- Wendell Niles as Man-on-the-Street Radio Announcer