The notoriously difficult to please John Ford regarded The Sun Shines Bright as his favourite film. Based on material from Irvin S. Cobb’s Judge Priest short stories, Ford had previously directed the 1934 film Judge Priest, starring Will Rogers, but was unsatisfied with the handling of the film by 20th Century Fox—particularly their decision to cut a vital scene depicting the main character condemning an attempted lynching. Two decades later, he chose to revisit the material for Republic Pictures, and the result was yet another masterpiece from the great director.
The Sun Shines Bright almost shared a similar fate as Judge Priest, with ten minutes of footage being removed by Republic Pictures. Fortunately, the original uncut master was not destroyed, and has now been fully restored and makes its UK debut on Blu-ray as part of the Masters of Cinema series.
Set in 1905 Kentucky, Judge Priest (Charles Winninger) is fighting for re-election against a Yankee prosecutor (Milburn Stone). Despite the Judge’s popularity, his generosity and sense of justice may cost him the election.
The Sun Shines Brightly is strange beast—a provincial comedy, in which racism and white supremacy are a bubbling undercurrent. Ford makes no attempts to hide or excuse either. However, while Judge Priest was intended to be a flawed but good man, trying to lead his town through through the post-Civil War era, to modern eyes, he’s simply a bigot who thinks he’s one of the good guys.
Ford’s visuals are spectacular and, while this isn’t a film that has aged well, Ford fans will find much to digest and discuss in a script that is as self-consciously critical of America as it is sentimental.