Film: 3 Godfathers (1948)
The Principals: Director: John Ford. John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., Pedro Armendariz, Mae Marsh
The Premise: Three outlaws casually ride into the town of Welcome, Arizona. Robert Hightower (Wayne), William Kearney (Carey), and Pedro Rocafuerte (Armendariz) are polite as polite can be. Howdy ma’am, good day sir — now stick ‘em up, because we’re robbing your bank! But things go awry for the gang. William and their water supply take bullets, and they are driven into the desert by Sheriff Buck Sweet.
Is It Good: It’s John Ford, so yes. No, it’s not one of his great films. Yes, it’s bit slight in the story department, and will probably strike modern eyes as a bit cliche. But it’s charming, and it’s sweaty, dirty, and rugged enough that you can forgive it being about three men and a baby.
Besides, unlike our yuppie versions of accidental guardians, the plight of Baby Robert is pretty damn haunting. Can you imagine how many wives and babies may have actually been abandoned on the frontier like this? It’s a moment that’s underlined when the outlaws find the little trunk of baby things that’s pathetically labeled “Our Baby.” It symbolizes the great hope of all those huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but the bleak surroundings that bury it suggest where so many of those people probably ended up.
But these determined and newly noble men would. And they’d hate themselves forever.
Is It Worth A Look: Absolutely. Yes, there’s a lot of Christian and Christmas symbolism. It even gives up allegory and just reads from the Bible towards the end. But it’s not offensive or dogmatic. It runs along the same lines as Children of Men. It’s relying on its imagery (pretty universal imagery if you know your “abandoned hero” mythology) to tell a story, not sell one brand of faith. Your comfort level may vary, of course. For my part, I eschew organized religion, but I love religious imagery of all kinds, and I can get behind the poetry of it. Especially if Ford is the one filming that humble donkey or Bible page.
But the main attraction of this film is Wayne. Like his squinty successor, Wayne became a particular persona, and rarely strayed from The Wayne Character. It’s one that makes a lot of people deeply uncomfortable. But this is an early Wayne film, so he wasn’t set on proving a political or social point. He’s loose and easy-going. He’s comfortable greasing up a baby (seriously) and laughing at the outlandishness of it all. It’s sweet, adorable, and without macho pretense.
But admittedly, this is a softer side he also shows later films such as The Quiet Man. What’s really remarkable about this role is that Wayne is actually willing to be weak. 3 Godfathers hits a pretty dark point, and he completely abandons himself to the despair. He’s broken. He doesn’t want to go on. He gives up. It’s only through some external encouragement (well, depending how you read his visions — but he thinks they’re real, so we’ll go with it) that he is able to pick himself up, and keep going for his little charge.
Just look at his face. Would the granite Duke ever betray such horror and hopelessness again?
Random Anecdotes: Wayne was sunburned so badly during filming that he was hospitalized. It’s a miracle these Western actors had any skin left when you think about it….