John Ford’s Three Godfathers (1948) is no ordinary western. It is a Christmas tale taking place in the Old West, where bandits become wise men, giving their lives and risking their freedom to care for a newborn baby.
The film screenplay is an adaptation of a novel by Peter Kyne (1913). In 1919, John Ford directed a silent version of the book, under the title Marked Men. Nearly thirty years later, Ford remade Three Godfathers – this time in technicolor – in tribute to the late star of this first movie, Harry Carey, Sr.
Throughout the film, John Ford draws many parallels with the story of the Nativity, setting it in Arizona with fugitives in the role of the Magi. The plot begins with a trio of outlaws – Bob Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney alias “The Kid” (Harry Carey Jr.) – who rob the bank of the small town of Welcome. But while the sheriff (Ward Bond) ardently pursues them through the desert, nothing happens as expected: the thieves desperately lack water, “The Kid” suffers from a gunshot wound, and Nature seems harsher than ever. After a violent sandstorm, the heroes lose their horses and end up walking towards Terrapin Tanks in order to find water. Unfortunately, the hole is dry, and not far from there, they eventually discover a wagon in which a woman is about to have a baby. This is Christmas time. Before dying, the mother makes the three bandits promise to take care of her son, whom she names in their honour Robert William Pedro. Following the “star” as in the Bible, the child’s new godfathers decide to take him to “New Jerusalem”.
At this point, it is quite hard to know whether this town really exists or if it is just another parallel to the Nativity, the religious allusions being so strong. Indeed, the plot becomes a real allegory of the heroes’ redemption. While they care for the orphan, they actually redeem themselves for their misdeeds, and turn out to be in reality good-hearted godfathers.
Yet, one of the movie’s strengths lies in some lighter, humorous scenes, such as when the baby drinks some milk “like a drunkard at a 4th of July barbeque”, according to Bob. These moments counterbalance the presence of religious elements, sometimes employed quite heavily. Men taking care of a baby is certainly a theme that fascinates film-makers, and constitutes a fairly good source of jokes. But the three heroes, and particularly John Wayne – though they are definitely shown as macho men from the South West – appear rather sensitive.
Regarding the cinematography, the setting of the film and its aesthetics are definitely captivating. John Ford often set his movies in Monument Valley, but Three Godfathers takes place in Death Valley, a much more hostile area, used to emphasize the difficulty of the characters’ salvation. The shots offer a splendid view on the impassive roughness of the West, such as when the trio cross the salt flats, the ground creaking under their feet and a blazing sun exhausting their last strengths.
In the end, even if the mix of genres between a traditional western set in the arid West and a Christmas tale ending happily may sound a little strange, Three Godfathers emerges as an entertaining film which leads the audience from funny scenes to a dramatic climax. The figure of the badman turning good is not new, and many films are based on this theme. However, Ford’s movie is well-balanced between humour and despair, and provides a nice western to watch, even for newcomers to the genre.
Three Godfathers (1948)
Cast: Robert Hightower . .. . . John Wayne
Pedro . . . . . Pedro Armendariz
« The Kid » . . . . . Harry Carey, Jr.
« Buck » Perley Sweet . . . . . Ward Bond
Mrs. Perley Sweet . . . . . Mae Marsh
The Mother . . . . . Mildred Natwick
Miss Florie . . . . . Jane Darwell
Judge . . . . . Guy Kibbee
Ruby Latham . . . . . Dorothy Ford
Posse member . . . . . Ben Johnson
Mr. Latham . . . . . Charles Halton
Deputy . . . . . Hank Worden
Conductor . . . . . Jack Pennick
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Laurence Stallings & Frank S. Nugent, from the story by Peter B. Kyne
Producer: John Ford & Merian C. Cooper for Argosy Pictures
Music: Richard Hageman
Running time: 106mn