Three Comrades is step in a very different direction for Borzage in this marathon. The previous three films I watched were much more focused on the lives of ordinary people, but as told through a melodramatic lens. Though the language of the dialogue in Three Comrades is heightened—even sounding melodramatic and highly romantic at times—the story is quite simple, quite raw, and never really over-the-top. It was actually refreshing to see this from Borzage just as I was settling into a bit of a reliable pattern.
The film tells the story of three friends who fought together during WWI for Germany. Now, in 1920, political troubles are tearing Germans apart and these three friends are trying to get by, helping each other out as much as possible. One of the men, Erich, played by Robert Taylor, falls in love with the gorgeous Patricia (Pat, for short). Margaret Sullivan is radiant as Pat, and their relationship is wonderful to watch as it grows and develops.
What makes the central romance much more beautiful than your standard romantic plot is the group dynamic. The other two friends—Gottfried, played by Robert Young, and Otto, played by the amazing Franchot Tone—actually do a lot of the heavy lifting in getting the couple together, and helping them stay together. It’s that group, that friendship, that sense of an adopted family that is really the best thing about the film. Through all their trouble these men are always there for each other, a bond born in war and forever unbreakable.
Three Comrades also has—at least as far as I’ve seen—Borzage’s most nuanced take on the social and class issues so often at play in his films. It isn’t just the story of the lower class trying to get by as the rich get richer. Three Comrades presents a broken society, but one where the lower class characters aren’t defined by their class struggle. They work, and live and try to get by. They wrestle with the ills of their country while trying to get over personal struggles like alcoholism and sickness. There is a breadth and complexity to these struggles that feels inherently more real than Borzage’s other work.
Three Comrades is a tragic film, but it is also a film that finds beauty in its tragedy. The ending of the film is dark and low key, especially compared to the triumphant finales of Lucky Star and Seventh Heaven, but it is touching and hopeful. In the story of Erich, Gottfried, Otto and Pat, Borzage has the perfect outlet for his uniquely human outlook on life, and what a joyous life it is.