Directed by John Ford
December 1, 1948
Three would be bank robbers stumble across a stranded wagon and a woman about to give birth. Upon her death they vow to care for the orphaned child and get him to safety.
The idea behind this film, based on the 1913 story The Three Godfathers by Peter B. Kyne, is that it is somewhat of a retelling of the story of the Three Wise Men in a Western setting though the Three Wise Men here are not saintly. They are three robbers whose attempt to rob a small bank in the town of Welcome, Arizona does not go as planned. Robert “Bob” Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro “Pete” Rocafuerte (Pedro Armendáriz), and William “The Abilene Kid” Kearney (Harry Carey, Jr.) are looking for an easy score and see it in the bank there.
Hightower is the obvious leader. He is the brains of the robbery and the guiding hand of their physical journey. Wayne does what he does best and becomes larger than life. He is the shepherd of the trio and their force of will.
Pete is the heart of the trio. He is the moral center which keeps the group working to get the child back to civilization. These are criminals with hearts and not the usual murderous desperados of other Westerns. If you did not realize that then you have never watched a John Wayne movie let alone heard of him. When he is part of the central group, they are not that villainous.
The Abilene Kid is perhaps the weakest of the three characters. He was just a little bit too much “Awe shucks” in his performance. Given that these thieves eventually become the heroes it just did not work. You never got a sense of the character having a change of heart. I was not expecting a hardened criminal, but he was too much “Good Guy” in how he was presented.
The child the outlaws stumble across, who is named “Robert William Pedro Hightower” in their honor, is the son of the nephew of Sheriff Sweet (Ward Bond) who is hot on their trail. It is a nice little loop here, the beginnings of which are started in the early minutes of the film when the outlaws first come to town and have a friendly conversation with two people that turn out to be the town’s sheriff and his wife (Mae Marsh). The sheriff picks up enough information from the conversation before Bob and friends realize who they are talking to in order to be aware enough to keep an eye on them and set up the main story.
The film touchingly opens with a dedication to director John Ford’s friend (and frequent star) Harry Carey Sr. who died in 1947. It is a rider (Cliff Lyons) silhouetted against a sunset on a horse (the senior Carey’s favorite horse Sonny) accompanied by the words: “To the Memory of Harry Carey, bright star of the Western sky…” Also of note is that the film’s opening credits say “Introducing Harry Carey, Jr.” but the actor had been in five or so films before this. During film reportedly Carey Jr. had a difficult time with Ford even though prior to this they had been on good terms. Ford was a difficult taskmaster on set and used it as a way to get the best performances from his actors. This appeared to have been an act (at least here) as Ford is said to have sent the young Carey home prior to the filming of the opening tribute in order to spare him emotional distress.
It is a fun fact that the senior Carey starred in the first version of this film in 1916 (Directed by Edward LeSaint) The Three Godfathers as a former horse thief trying to go straight as well as the 1919 remake directed by Ford called Marked Men (believed at this time to be lost).
Given that it is a Western retelling of the story of the Three Wisemen and that it does occur around Christmas time, I think you could argue that this John Wayne Western is actually a Christmas film and quite possibly Wayne’s ONLY Christmas film. I am still making my way through the entirety of his filmography so I could be wrong on this. I do wish the Christmas aspect would have been played up a little bit more rather than in that brief scene at the bar towards the end. Beyond that there are casual mentions of the date during the course of the story but no visual indications nor is the holiday too played up.
We do get a harder allusion to the Nativity story though when towards the end of his journey, Hightower comes across a colt and a donkey and makes his way to the nearby town of New Jerusalem. He is delivering this Western Christ child of the story on a donkey much like the Holy Family arrived in the city of Jerusalem.
I personally think Sheriff Sweet should have been made a little darker of a character in order to bring him closer to the traditional depiction of King Herod and drive home the inspiration for the story. He is a threat to our heroes escaping but not a hinderance to their goal with the child. The film does get dark at times. One is when after the remaining 3 Godfathers, having lost the Abilene Kid, Pedro trips and breaks his leg. Hightower leaves a gun with him “for the coyotes” and as he is walking away, he hears a gunshot which implies a suicide. That is quite dark for a Wayne film.
As a film it is well directed, and it looks quite good. Then again would you expect anything less from a John Ford Western? In terms of story it is definitely one of John Wayne’s lighter films. There are no big bads to overcome or opportunities for him to use his fists. He is not romancing a woman throughout nor is his character dealing with any personal issues.
3 Godfathers is an entertaining and light film. Viewed as straight Western it is an entertaining adventure romp. As a Christmas Western it is a bit unusual in the genre. Regardless it is a good time. Watch it!