3 Godfathers – 1948

Director John Ford
Screenplay Laurence Stallings, Frank S. Nugent, Robert Nathan based on the novelette by Peter B. Kyne
Starring John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Jane Darwell, Mae Marsh, Mildred Natwick, Dorothy Ford

Kyne’s 3 Godfathers had been done so many times by 1948, it had already been done by Ford himself for the second time, after 1919’s Marked Men.Harry Carey Jr.’s father had done two versions himself, including Marked Men. The beginning of this film has a tribute to Carey Sr. who died at the start of production.

Reputed to be the first John Wayne / John Ford film filmed in Technicolor, it is certainly a beautiful film. There is no end to vast and expansive scenes of Death Valley, set to be the Mojave Desert, including a brutal trip across a salt lake. That there is a rudimentary plot designed to make the most heroic visage of its three erstwhile bandits (Wayne, Carey Jr. and Armendáriz), it is better than one would expect for its time, but it certainly is silly, for the most part.

What it has going for it, beyond Ford’s magnificent eye and John Wayne’s burgeoning charisma is a good supporting cast that includes Bond and Armendáriz. Bond’s Sheriff Sweet, in particular, has a wisdom that generates most of the plot for the middle section of the film when his choice to respect life and protect the watering stations leads the bandits to their destiny. The trio are on the run from Sweet and his deputies after they rob the bank in the town of Welcome, Arizona.

Sweet’s decision to aim for the water bag instead of any of the center mass for the robbers puts them in dire need to seek out water. Then he sends deputies to protect all of the local watering holes down the rail lines, leaving the trio to head the opposite direction, where they find a wagon where Sweet’s niece-in-law is found, about to give birth after being left behind by her tenderfoot husband who is lost chasing after their horses in search of water. After helping the dying mother deliver her child at the moment they are in critical need of water themselves, they make a promise to deliver the child and be their Godfathers.

The journey is complicated by Carey Jr.’s “Abilene Kid’s” gunshot injury. Even so, the three find a correlation in the Bible with their journey. This reinforces their decision to push forward and make his survival their primary objective. Here Armendáriz shines, as the one of the three whose previous experience helps the three believe it is possible to achieve. Giving someone of Hispanic descent such a role of equality in a film of this era is a step in the right direction, even if the dialogue is at time politically incorrect. I will take it.

There is nothing in this film that feels remotely conceivable to those who understand how brutal just walking in the desert could be, but that doesn’t diminish from the objective. It’s a sweet film that takes a kinder route than the previous efforts had used. In particular, the bandits are all pretty nice guys who would rather shoot in the air instead of at anyone in particular.

All told, this is a beautiful, if dispensable film for any time. It’s got a universal appeal with a simple story that works for purposes of a positive message in a desert world. It is good enough for this viewer for and Easter weekend movie.

(*** out of *****)

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