Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
In 1916 Frank Borzage made a terrific early western, entitled “The Pilgrim.” It starred Borzage himself in the role of a drifter whose gallantry is brought to the fore by the plight of a lovely girl. In the way it suppresses the traditional qualities of the western, replacing them with delicate tendrils of feeling, it’s perhaps more similar to Swedish films of the period, such as those made by Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller, than it is to early American genre films. Though externally a western, “The Pilgrim” is geared for reflection rather than ricochets, and in its calm, clear-eyed naturalism, it achieves a sort of cowpoke classicism.
Borzage followed it up in 1917 with another western, entitled “Until They Get Me.” Joe King plays a Canadian Mountie who’s failed to get his man, a fugitive who has inadvertently killed in a desperate attempt to reach his dying wife. The next several years of King’s life are consumed by this failure; a western hero of the old school, he’s bound by honor to bring the criminal to justice and set things right. That criminal, played with sweaty earnestness by Jack Curtis, is equally consumed: his whole existence is devoted to eluding the grip of the law; should he fail, his daughter will be orphaned. The bond between these two men is complicated by — is in a sense mediated by — the third major character, an orphan girl played by Pauline Starke. Lithe and darkly pretty, with wild flyaway hair, Starke combines the feistiness of Mary Pickford with a subterranean sensuality. You watch her and wonder why she wasn’t a bigger star.
The way Borzage handles the shifting points of view, deftly managing audience sympathy in the process, is masterful. When Starke encounters Curtis, and she lies in order to help him elude capture, she assumes a measure of his guilt; this lends a Hitchcockian bite of suspense to the final third of the film, which finds her inhabiting the very outpost at which King is stationed. Will she spill the beans on Curtis in order to pursue a relationship with King, or will she uphold her promise to the fugitive and preserve his secret? This dilemma, pitting Starke’s honor against King’s, is what gives the movie its tense, unsettled quality. In some ways, the relationships here are as loaded as those in “The Searchers.”
That’s not the only aspect of “Until They Get Me” that’s redolent of John Ford. The milieu of the Mountie outpost, with its military hierarchy and Boy Scoutish sense of gallantry, feels like the direct antecedent of those in Ford’s cavalry movies; there’s even a sozzled Irishman whom Borzage cuts to whenever he’s in need of some comic relief. Most Fordish of all is a scene in which Starke, the lone young woman at the outpost, joins the troops for dinner at the year’s big gala. The men light candles, they stand when she’s about to enter, and when she appears in the doorway — radiant, in a white gown — they’re stunned to silence, as though in genuflection to the civilizing influence of her femininity. The quasi-religious atmosphere of this scene is so reminiscent of similar scenes in “Rio Grande” (Maureen O’Hara) and “They Were Expendable” (Donna Reed), that I think it’s likely Ford saw this movie as a young man, and was impressed by it.