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.

They’re desperate for water and are chased off every tank or town they find thanks to Sweet and his posse. At last, the trio finds a watering hole, but it’s been ruined by a dopey pioneer, who has gone and gotten himself killed. To make matters worse, he’s left his pregnant wife (Marsh) abandoned in the desert with no water, and no way out.   The robbers end up delivering her baby. She names the baby Robert William Pedro, dubs them his protectors, and dies.   The bewildered trio is now stuck with a newborn baby.   But they stubbornly stick to their charge despite the posse on their trail, dehydration, and the dangers of the desert.   Oh, and all this just happens to fall on a rather significant week in December. Will the three godfathers experience a Christmas miracle? Or will they be just another set of bleached bones in the desert?

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 this is a John Ford story, and he believed in America and fairy tales, so Baby Robert has a happier fate.  He’s rescued by three gunslingers, who refuse to abandon him to the desert.  Once he’s entrusted to them, they forget about saving their own lives and dedicate themselves to preserving his.  They go without water, food, and sleep.   This is the 1940s, so these robbers are hardly Blondie or Tuco, but it’s nevertheless a journey of sacrifice, heartbreak and redemption.

If anyone but Ford had shot the film, I suspect it might be utterly forgettable.  But 3 Godfathers is elevated due to its beautiful minimalist cinematography.  The desert becomes a blinding, chalky, and scratchy enemy.   It’s tangible. You feel the heat and the horror.  A lot of great Westerns play the suffering thirst card – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly comes to mind — but this one plays in New Testament terminology.  The desert is the antithesis to baby Robert, and is as much of a symbolic character as he is.  If he’s washing away their sins, then this is the devil tempting them to commit the ultimate one: Leave the kid, and save yourself.   Go on.  He’s too little to even know what hit him.  No one will know.

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?

So yes. You should check it out, especially at this time of the year. It’s a brawny and masculine movie to add to your holiday rotation. It would play especially beautifully after you’ve put your eyes out with that 24 hour A Christmas Story marathon.

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….