Peter B. Kyne’s novel The Three Godfathers has been adapted for the screen a number of times, with John Ford taking two whacks at it. His first attempt was in 1919 with Marked Men, a picture that starred Harry Carey and is now presumed lost. He remade it in Technicolor with 3 Godfathers and dedicated this 1948 western to Carey, also picking up his son Harry Carey, Jr. to play one of the critical roles.
3 Godfathers is one of those rare Christmas-themed westerns and it’s gained a reputation over the years as being a sort of fairy tale, with pesky sentiment and decency crowding the plot. But Ford’s film, featuring a screenplay by Laurence Stallings, Frank S. Nugent and Robert Nathan, has plenty of dark edges.
John Wayne stars as Robert Hightower, a rugged rustler intent on robbing a bank with Pedro (Pedro Armendáriz) and young William Kearney (Carey, Jr.). After the heist in the town of Welcome, Arizona, the trio heads for the desert with Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond) in hot pursuit. The lads are running out of water fast, so Sweet targets the water towers and stations his men out on the lookout.
One day, Hightower and Co. think they’ve come upon the only safe water source in the area when it turns out some “tenderfoot” has ruined the whole setup. It gets worse: there’s a woman (Mildred Natwick) waiting inside a covered wagon waiting to have a baby. Pedro delivers it, but the mother dies and makes the three thieves promise to look after her wailing little one.
In part, 3 Godfathers is a redemptive tale with some hefty religious themes. It suggests the path of the fabled Three Wise Men from the Gospel of Matthew in some sense, although there are considerable differences from the actual text. It falls more like a Christian traditional, complete with its own exaggerated mythology.
The temptation is to suggest that the three robbers in 3 Godfathers are much too nice to get by as criminals, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Early on, they arrive in the absurdly nice town of Welcome to rob a bank. They find a house sign reading B. Sweet and begin to joyously tease the man tending to his garden, ignorant to the knowledge that he’s the sheriff.
Later, Kearney sustains a wound in the robbery and struggles through the desert. Death seems certain, especially because of game Sweet is playing with the water towers. When hope finally does appear to materialize, the dire mistakes of the “tenderfoot” seem all but calamitous. This highlights the importance of water, the necessity of faith in the ceaseless desert.
That futility continues with the dying mother, a desperate woman who only wants her child to have a chance and gives it up in her delirium. She has little choice. She’s seeing the darkness draw near and can either hold on to her infant or give it up to the living.
Ford swings the rest of his movie from cute little scenes involving the three robbers trying to figure out how to keep the baby alive to sequences that play out almost like fever dreams in the desert. There’s a lot of wandering, stumbling and arguing. There is death. There is even suicide, a miserable but necessary moment that highlights the notion that hope isn’t enough.
Featuring the cinematography of Winton Hoch, 3 Godfathers captures the immensity of the desert and the black comedy of the great pursuit. Sheriff Sweet tries his best to set traps, but even he succumbs to the day-to-day frustration of simply being alive in the West. He’s irritated by Curly (Hank Worden) and his wheezing donkey, for one, and his daughter has yet to arrive from out of town.
Few people in Ford’s film are offered a truly happy ending. They simply have to make do. While the finale does spark a heartening note that seems a little too compact, the balance of 3 Godfathers is an interesting and surprisingly gloomy piece of work. It finds Christmas miracles in the sand, in the endlessness, in the slim light provided by following that damn star wherever it leads.