The late 1940s and into the 1950s was an important stretch for John Ford, the legendary director turning in some of his finest work. His cavalry trilogy — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, Rio Grande — are the movies he’s most often associated with, but it was during the same stretch that Ford directed one of his best westerns, 1948’s 3 Godfathers, a flick that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.
Three outlaws, Bob Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr.), have robbed the bank in the tiny, usually peaceful town of Welcome, Arizona. They hightail it out of town with a saddlebag full of gold, the town sheriff, Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), managing to shoot their water bag in a chaotic chase across the desert. Now, it’s a chess match for water, and who can go longer without it, the outlaws or the sheriff and his posse. Out in the desert, Bob, Pedro and William stumble across a pregnant woman alone and about to give birth. She dies soon after, leaving the trio in survival mode…and now caring for an infant. Without any horses, can they get him to safety?
There’s an aura often when you watch a Ford western, especially in this stage of his career. Trademark, signatures, whatever you want to call them, but they’re easily visible. Though ‘Godfathers’ has some darker moments, it’s one of Ford’s relatively lighter westerns. There’s drama but humor to balance it out. And there’s no other way to say it, this is cheesy, downright corny at times. My point though? It doesn’t matter. It’s a gem.
Not filming in his usual Monument Valley, Ford films instead in Death Valley, a sparse, dangerous stretch of land if there ever was, but an oddly beautiful land. Filmed in Technicolor, it’s a visual stunner, even the colors from 1948 popping to life. The skies, the clouds, even the costumes all leave a lasting impression. Add a familiar but memorable score from composer Richard Hageman (a frequent partner in Ford movies), and that halfway decent cast, you’ve got a winner.
This was actually the third retelling of the basic story, Ford even filming a silent version in 1919 (it was remade again in 1936, a solid flick all-around). What holds it together — however cheesy/corny/overdone at times — is the casting. A 40-year old Wayne steals the show as Bob, the no-nonsense leader of our little “gang” who’s long rode with Pedro and looks out for Kearney (AKA The Abilene Kid) as he goes on his first job. Armendariz and Carey Jr. match him step-for-step, chemistry to burn as first just survival is the key, but then so much more and something bigger when the infant’s survival is at stake. No matter whether it’s the lighter, comedic moments or the harsher, darker realities setting in, I absolutely love the 3 Godfathers characters. Basically the three nicest “bad guys” ever in a western.
Ford fills out his supporting cast with more than a few familiar faces from his Stock Company (character actors who were in many Ford movies). Ward Bond is excellent as Buck “Perley” Sweet, Welcome’s sheriff who unintentionally befriends the outlaws before realizing who they are, Mae Marsh playing his wife. Mildred Natwick is excellent in one quick scene (but a highly memorable one) as the Mother who as she’s dying asks the three outlaws to be godfathers to her infant son, who she names Robert William Pedro after them. Other familiar faces include Jane Darwell, Guy Kibbee, Hank Worden, Jack Pennick, and in his first credited role, Ben Johnson. It obviously wouldn’t be the last we heard of him in the western genre.
What may surprise some viewers here that ‘Godfathers’ become a variation of Three Men and a Baby meets an American wild west version of the Three Kings story from the Nativity story. So….yes, it is a bit of a Christmas movie! The 3 godfathers must travel to New Jerusalem in hopes of saving the baby, often looking to a bright star for guidance. There’s some faith, some religion, some good and evil along the way, and a story with some surprising twists in its last third. It is cheesy at times and may drive some viewers away, but it’s always been a favorite. Definitely worth a watch.
Ford actually dedicated the film to his longtime friend and star, Harry Carey (Carey Jr.’s father), who had died the year before in 1947. His son more than holds his own, stealing some scenes, especially when he sings Streets of Laredo to the baby as a lullaby. Any-hoo, give it a watch!
3 Godfathers (1948): *** 1/2 /****