Three Comrades (1938)

Love.  Frank Borzage’s films are fascinating with the supernatural power of love. While this often manifests itself in the redemptive act of love, a love that saves people from their weakness, fatal circumstances or self-destructive tendencies in films like Lucky Star, History is Made at Night and The River, Three Comrades is a much more complicated and multifaceted look at the concept of love than most of Borzage’s films.

Credit to some of these differences must be given to screenwriters F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edward E. Paramore Jr. who adapted the film to the screen from Erich Maria Remarque’s book (famous for his classic book All Quiet on the Western Front). Therefore, Remarque’s sensibility, although not dissimilar to Borzage’s own in some ways, helps shape some of the key differences. It’s a more fatalistic story, more tragic, more bittersweet.

Fitzgerald and Paramore Jr. also spice the film up with some fantastic dialogue. Wordplay, one-liners and the repetition of lines become more than just a jousting act to awe the audience, but ways to pierce into the hearts and minds of the characters, show their ambitions, ideologies and flaws. It also becomes a way to express the unity and fraternity of the group.

The film opens with the fraternal love of three brothers in arms. The romantic, Erich (Robert Taylor), the reason, Otto (Franchot Tone), and the idealist, Gottfried (Robert Young), celebrate the end of World War I, eagerly looking forward to the season of peace that lies ahead. However, remaining in reconstruction era Germany, the three comrades are caught amid the growing spirit of dissent and revolt in Germany.

In the growing darkness, the three friends are given a glimmer of hope: a woman named Patricia Hollmann (Margaret Sullavan). While it’s Erich that pursues the young woman, she brings light and life to the three friends, reinvigorating their zest for life and giving the friend a newfound sense of hope. Nothing seems too bleak or difficult with the illumination Patricia brings to every moment of the day.

The early section of film nestles nicely into other films by Borzage such as 7th Heaven and Moonrise, films about how love can overcome even the bleakest and most desperate situations. However, this is just the beginning, and as the film continues, the film takes a darker turn, echoing strains of The Mortal Storm, a film set amid the rising threat of Nazism in Austria. How does love become a form of complication for these four friends?

Alluded to early in the film, Patricia hides a dark secret from her three dear friends, afraid at what the truth might do to the happiness of the days they have before them.  Eventually, the truth must come out and the later sections of the film show how the love that made life so easy and happy before now takes a turn where the same impulse might begin to hurt those around her.

Otto faces a similar struggle over how to express his love. While he is deeply devoted to his comrades from the war, he also has grown close to Germany’s freedom fighters. His affiliation with the group puts not only his own life at risk, but the lives of his friends. Does he give up what he believes in for the love of his friends? Or does he cling to his love of an idea greater and purer than one, or three, man? Does he even have the right to make such a decision over the lives of his friends?

In Three Comrades, love becomes a moral dilemma. What may be an expression of love may also lead to something selfish, irresponsible and reckless, controlled by passion and impulse instead of reason and wisdom. The film never condemns the love of these people, but it never shies away from showing the ramifications of their acts of love and the deep damage it causes to others.

Three Comrades is one of Borzage’s most mature works, exploring dimensions of love and tragedy not covered by many of his other films. The typical Borzage themes still echo in Three Comrades, but in conjunction with Remarque’s source material, the film surpasses many of Borzage’s best films and stands as one of the director’s finest achievements, a testament to the complications of the human heart.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing