There’s something very charming about an outlaw who shows us his good side. Sure, he breaks laws; but in a pinch, his instinct to do the truly right thing blazes in, just in the nick of time. He’s often the anti-hero with a tough, crusty exterior and vulnerable mush inside. The lovable cad.
In John Ford’s technicolor 3 GODFATHERS (1948), based on the 1918 novelette by Peter B Kyne, Ford introduces us to three outlaws who take us on a western journey of survival with a biblical Three Magi theme. And yes, these three outlaws give us their good sides, plenty.
In this film, Ford does what Ford does best. Gathers some of his entourage of actors, finds a breathtaking filming location for a backdrop, develops unforgettable characters with sprinkles of humor, then he masters the western storytelling like no one else. 3 GODFATHERS is a indeed western. But it’s also a heist film, a race for survival film, a spin on the standard hero film, a buddy film, and a romanticized telling of The Three Wise Men/ Christmas story.
Ford made films from the silents to the 1960s, within a variety of genres including many masterpieces, but it is the western we most associate with his signature work. When you see a Ford western, you know it, and this one is unmistakably Ford. For a demanding director who was infamous for his gruff manner and harsh treatment of his cast, he had a heart-warming sentimental side that shines through in his films.
In 3 GODFATHERS, the sentiment starts even as the opening credits roll. Both Ford and his frequent lead, John Wayne, were very good friends with actor Harry Carey who just passed the year prior. Carey starred in Ford’s silent version of this film from 1916 with the same title. In the opening credits, Ford dedicates the film to him with a silhouette of a cowboy figure resembling Carey with the quote, “bright star of the early western sky.” But make no mistake in thinking this film is a soft, wordy piece. The man was a ‘doer’ of few words. Likewise, 3 GODFATHERS is a visual story telling of action across stunning landscapes, often with horses, mules, and an abundance of thirst.
Our three outlaws are John Wayne as Robert Marmaduke Hightower (named by Ford for his favorite stuntman Slim Hightower), Pedro Armendariz as Pedro, and Harry Carey, Jr. as William Kearney aka “The Abilene Kid.” Despite choosing opposing sides of the law, marshal Perley ‘Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond) and Hightower connect instantly with report, respect, and humor, even before the 3 outlaws rob the local bank. As Perley and a posse take chase across the desert, Hightower strategically does his best to outwit their pursuit efforts. Perley isn’t daunted, his admiration for Robert only grows stronger.
In their quest for water and escape, the trio come across a dire scenario. A woman has been abandoned by a derelict husband who has left after forever destroying a water well in his ignorantly “tenderfoot” ways. Worst yet, she is about as pregnant as anyone could be. No means for water, the threesome make do with cactus juice and meager newborn provisions from the wagon where the woman gives birth, thanks to Pedro. There is an especially poignant and gentle scene portrayed by Mildred Natwick as the pregnant woman (supposedly 28 or 30 years old, but she was actually 43 years old at filming) who gives birth to a baby boy, whom she names Robert William Pedro, after his three godfathers.
In Scott Eyman’s novel, “Print The Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford,” he quotes Natwick’s recall of her experience in working with Ford in this particular scene:
“I’ve never forgotten,” remembered Natwick, “that Ford seemed pleased with the scene and pleased that I done it. I guess because I knew my lines and got through it in [one] morning… I don’t know, you get things by osmosis from a wonderful director, I think. His feeling about what the woman was thinking and feeling.”
Natwick’s account was a stark contrast from Harry (“Dobe”) Carey, Jr.’s, for whom Jack Ford was also known as “Uncle Jack.” Despite the fond admiration betwixt his father and Jack, Dobe was not given any special treatment on the set. If anything, Ford was much tougher on him than most. Also according to Eyman’s book, this was Jack’s typical baptism onto his set via a form of fraternity hazing.
Clearly, Ford was a complicated man imbued with contradictions. Perhaps the salty layers of Robert Hightower with a firm moral code is how Jack chose to see himself.
I won’t reveal a full synopsis of this film to spoil it, but I’m confident that at the beating heart of 3 GODFATHERS is its humanity. Each of the three outlaw godfathers reveal their ultimate goodness, and individual strengths and weaknesses to us. Both small characters (like man-hungry, cackling Jane Darwell as Miss Florie) and larger characters alike are brilliantly developed and showcased. You don’t have to be a nativity believer to find appeal in this moral journey these three men face. Their struggle for survival and search for integrity at all costs, in complete devotion to the baby, tugs at the heart strings.
I’m a sucker for the holidays. I embrace it with child-like wonder and magic. If this is a Christmas film you’ve never seen before, or if it’s been a long time, you owe it to yourself to screen it soon. You can get your chance via TCM in December 15th at 9:30pm ET, 2018.
*This article is a submission to the Outlaws- The 2018 Fall CMBA Blogathon. I encourage you to read all the entries (click here for each day’s full list: https://clamba.blogspot.com/2018/10/outlaws-2018-fall-cmba-blogathon.html ) in this collective, of which I’m proud to be a part of.
8 thoughts on “3 Godfathers”
If you liked this you should check out the anime film Tokyo Godfathers (review on my site) which is loosely based on this story. 🙂
You wrote a beautiful article on this Ford film that is filled with such meaning for so many.
I think it is so telling that despite his crotchety (understated) ways, so many actors continued to work with Ford. I believe they must have been very proud of the work done under the banner of the stock company.
A perfect choice for the blogathon and for the holiday season. You perfectly why I believe this is Ford’s most underrated masterpiece.
Lovely piece on Three Godfathers, Kellee. I’m always reminded of my own father when I see – or read about – crusty-on-the-outside/softy-on-the-inside characters. He was one of those, and a man of the West. John Ford’s westerns in particular, and which dad loved, always bring him to mind.
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That’s so sweet. I’m happy this film brings you an extra layer of warm nostalgia. Xo
This movie is on TCM tonight – 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time
Yup, I included this date into my post. Watching it right now myself. 🙂
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Full gamut of emotions. Excellent!