There haven’t been too many westerns that are set around Christmas, in fact I’m struggling to think of any others apart from 3 Godfathers (1948) and the earlier versions of the same story. While it starts out as a fairly standard western it soon turns into a play on the nativity story and the journey of the three wise men. It’s one of John Ford’s more sentimental pieces and the symbolism is laid on a little thick at times, but the cast and visuals carry it through the sticky patches. I’ll grant that the whole thing can seem a bit contrived yet the story, and its message of redemption and the good that lurks within all of us, remains affecting.
The movie opens in fairly conventional fashion, with the three main protagonists Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro (Pedro Amendariz) and The Abilene Kid (Harry Carey Jr) surveying a town they’re about to enter and rob. Before they can get down to business, however, they get chatting to a local resident (Ward Bond) who turns out to be the local lawman. Thus far much of the action is played for laughs, and broad Fordian laughs at that, and the light heartedness even extends to the raid on the bank. The first really serious note is struck when The Abilene Kid takes a bullet to the shoulder as they attempt their getaway. As the three men race out into the desert with the law hot on their heels, one shot finds its target and punctures the vitally important water bag. Safe in the knowledge that no one is going to travel far in the parched wilderness with only a limited supply of water the lawman eases back and sets about laying a trap. That singe shot has essentially sealed the fate of the three outlaws, as they discover that the law (with the help of the railroad) is one jump ahead of them and bent on keeping them away from any source of water. In an effort to outsmart the authorities, the men double back but in so doing stumble upon a situation that will bring about profound changes within them all. They come across an abandoned wagon containing a pregnant woman who’s about to give birth. Their most basic human instincts are aroused by this pitiful scene and, after seeing that the baby is delivered, find themselves giving their oath to the now dying mother to protect her infant son. From this point on a gradual transformation takes place wherein each man suppresses his own selfish needs in order to ensure the fulfillment of their promise. As they trudge across the gruelling desert, shedding their possessions along the way, they come to view the protection of their new godson as the only purpose in their lives. As such, their trek turns into a kind of pilgrimage to cleanse themselves of the evil that had motivated them until that time. As I said the symbolism can be a little heavy handed (following a star to the town of New Jerusalem etc.) but the hardship of the journey and the fact that these hardened criminals are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of an innocent and a promise prevents the film from becoming a parody.
John Ford opened the film with an onscreen tribute to his departed friend Harry Carey Sr and then took the further step of casting the latter’s son in the pivotal role of The Abilene Kid, the conscience of the three bad men. However, that’s about as far as the old man’s sentimentality went for it’s well documented that he drove his cast mercilessly in the searing heat of Death Valley. Despite, or maybe because, of this the performances of the three leads are first rate. Carey in particular is touching as the callow youth who’s simultaneously running from and striving to retain some of his boyish innocence. The way he calmly accepts his fate before such thoughts enter his companions’ heads is a fine piece of acting. In fact, Ford granted the young man some of the best scenes in the movie: singing over the grave of the baby’s mother and then his own death scene. Both Armendariz and Wayne were handed more straightforward roles as the older and more experienced men and they don’t disappoint either. The part of Robert Hightower has none of the complexity of Wayne’s more famous and prestigious performances yet he does all the script and director ask of him, and carries the picture alone for a significant time. The bulk of the action takes place outdoors on location in Death Valley and Ford creates some beautiful and bleak images – the dust storm (with all its attendant symbolism) being a particular highlight. The support cast is filled up with all the familiar faces from the “Stock Company”, Ward Bond and Mae Marsh getting the lion’s share of the screen time.
3 Godfathers is widely available on DVD from Warner. I have the R2 disc, but I’ve heard that the US version is the same, and the transfer is a good one. Print damage is minimal and the colour is strong, the outdoor scenes faring best to my eyes. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer, and a variety of subtitle options. While this is not one of Ford’s very best, it remains a top film by anyone’s standards. In a way, it’s what you might call a typical Ford movie in that it contains most of his trademark visual and thematic motifs. All in all, it’s a satisfying and uplifting production that works well both as a seasonal film and as a traditional western.
Finally, as this will be my last post before the holidays I want to take the time to wish all those who have followed, commented or just stopped by a very happy and peaceful Christmas. Be seeing you again in the New Year.