3 Godfathers (1948) Review

3 Godfathers (1948) Director: John Ford

“I just remembered what tomorrow is –Feliz Navidad, Merry Christmas.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

While certainly not John Ford’s most renowned film, 3 Godfathers offers an amusing twist on the Biblical three wise men motif (3 Godfathers is actually a little known Christmas movie). This was the fifth film version of the story, the first appearing in 1916 which starred Harry Carey, who also appeared in a later Ford version of the story entitled Marked Men in 1919. Ford used this opportunity to pay homage to Harry Carey –“Dedicated to Harry Carey, bright star of the early Western sky.” Appropriately, Carey’s son, Harry Carey Jr., co-stars in 3 Godfathers.

The film tells the story of three cattle ranchers –Robert “Bob” Hightower (John Wayne), a Mexican vaquero named Pedro or “Pete” (Pedro Armendáriz) and William Kearney “The Abilene Kid” (Harry Carey Jr.)– who ride across rugged, dusty terrain from Texas in order to rob a bank in Welcome, Arizona (the movie was actually shot in Death Valley, CA). Bob Hightower seems to be the most committed to the heist, while Pete would rather be rustling cows and fantasizing about ladies. After arriving in Welcome, they meet the town sheriff, Perley “Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond) and his kindly wife (Mae Marsh), along with the banker’s daughter. In broad daylight, they quickly rob the town bank and as the trio flees, William is shot in the arm while they escape on horseback. Sheriff Sweet –who serves as the paragon of law and order– allows them to wander deep into the Arizona desert with limited water. He deputizes a cohort of men in the service of hunting down the bandits. Knowing they are low on water, Sheriff Sweet seeks to outsmart the thieves and block their access to water at every turn, leading them to squeeze cacti for water, and as they ride deeper into the unforgiving expanse, they lose their horses and soon discover a pregnant woman inside an abandoned wagon. Desperate for help, Pete helps deliver her baby, and shortly before she dies, she names the baby Robert William Pedro (after the three men), appointing them as godfathers.

From here –the midway point of the film– the tone and direction changes. The parched struggle for survival turns into a silly comedy. The three men assume paternal roles over their godson, squabbling over feedings. They decide to turn around and return to civilization for the sake of the child (they note nearby Biblically themed cities –Cairo, New Jerusalem, and Damascus). As they trudge overland, William tragically dies and Pedro “Pete” collapses and breaks his leg, dying by suicide in the desert shortly thereafter. Bob Hightower slowly makes his way back to Welcome, Arizona in a state of delirium while carrying the baby, supported by a burro. Sheriff Sweet finally catches Bob Hightower at the bar, but in imprisonment, both men become good friends and Bob’s sentence is reduced to the minimum charge –one year and one day– once they hear the story of his rescue of the baby. In the end, Bob gives a rousing farewell to the town as he leaves for prison on the train out of Welcome.

While not the most complex or challenging of Ford’s films, 3 Godfathers is nevertheless a beautiful, expansive technicolor dream rife with loose religious imagery and scenic vistas as we travel over arid deserts, sand dunes, and through craggy canyons. This sentimental Christmas Western is sure to delight completionists of the Ford-Wayne classics.

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