By the time John Ford's 3 Godfathers was released in 1948, the basic premise of the story had been used several times before...five times in movie form actually and one was even directed by Ford. But by 1948, Ford had more technology available to him including the obvious one, sound, and Technicolor formatting that was also used a year later in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The famous director also played up another aspect of the story, an allegory of Jesus' birth and the three kings who came to see him, but keeping the unique spin of setting the story in the wild west.
After successfully robbing a bank in the town of Welcome, Arizona, three men, Bob Hightower (John Wayne), a Texas outlaw who lives on the wrong side of the law, William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr), a youngster known as the Abilene Kid along for his first robbery, and Pedro Rocafuerte (Pedro Armendariz), a Mexican bandit who's ridden with Bob, hightail it into the desert with a posse close behind. Leading that posse is Sheriff Perley 'Buck' Sweet (Ward Bond), a peace officer who tries to avoid violence as much as he can. Trying to outsmart the other one, Bob and Buck try to get to one of the few water holes in the area.
Reaching one of those holes, Bob and Co. stumble across a wagon with a pregnant mother (Mildred Natwick) inside ready to give birth. Struggling to stay alive, she gives birth to a boy, asking these three men to care for her son as godfathers, dying soon after. So these three outlaws give their word and must figure out how to care for the infant in the desert with little water for them, much less a baby. Knowing the posse will figure out where they are, the trio heads off for New Jerusalem, the closest town around, with no horses, a few canteens of water and no food across the desert to deliver the boy to safety.
Over a career that spanned silent and sound movies, the name John Ford became synonymous with westerns, and while this is not one of his most respected or well known westerns, it's still an above average entry into his filmography. He filmed the movie in the Mojave Desert and Death Valley as opposed to Monument Valley, and the results show. It's a stark landscape the three godfathers must trudge across to get to New Jerusalem. Ford takes advantage of the Technicolor imaging, bringing colors to life where many directors would have filmed the desert in black and white. Certain Ford touches are here, especially in the somewhat sappy ending that differs from the tone of the rest of the movie, but that's a given when watching one of this director's movies.
By 1948, John Wayne had become Ford's go-to guy with a lead role as he was just coming off the success of Fort Apache, the first of Ford's so-called Cavalry trilogy. To be fair, I haven't seen all of Wayne's hour-long serials, but this is one of the few movies where the actor played a bad guy...sort of. Sure, he's an outlaw and a bank robber, but a really nice one at that. The same goes for Armendariz and Carey Jr. The trio has chemistry to spare as they care for Robert William Pedro, the name given the boy in honor of his godfathers. There's obvious humor as three bachelor outlaws who have no idea to care for a baby struggle to adjust. Wayne was a fine comedic actor when given the chance, and he provides several good laughs in this one as do Armendariz and Carey Jr.. As the sheriff chasing them, Bond is his usual self, a loud, boisterious fella who is nonetheless a likable guy.
After rival Howard Hawks gave Carey Jr a supporting role in Red River, a somewhat insulted Ford -- who worked with Carey Sr many times -- took it upon himself to add the young actor in the cast listing as 'And introducing Harry Carey Jr.' It seems Ford didn't want to talk about Red River. But that's how Ford was, and over the years he built the Ford Stock Company, actors and actresses you see in almost all his movies. Armendariz, Carey Jr, Natwick and Bond all qualify, but that list also includes Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Jack Pennick, Mae Marsh, all of whom have supporting parts in 3 Godfathers. Also look for Ben Johnson in his first credited role as one of Sweet's posse.
So as Christmas draws near, if you're looking for an atypical holiday movie give this one a try. It's not a straight-on Christmas story, but it's close and at the heart of the movie is a sweet story about three tough outlaws putting themselves in harm's way to care for a newborn infant. Good casting as usual with a Ford movie, beautiful on-location filming, and a solid story that's been reused time and again since *cough 3 Men and a Baby cough*. It's available on Youtube, starting here with Part 1 of 11, but this is one I'd recommend watching on TV for the scope of the movie.
3 Godfathers <----trailer (1948): *** 1/2 /****