3 Godfathers (1948)
“John Ford’s Legend of the Southwest!”
Director: John Ford
Cast: John Wayne, Pedro ArmendÃ¡riz, Harry Carey Jr.
Synopsis: When 3 outlaws on the run find a dying woman and her newborn baby in the desert they vow to save the child.
While 3 Godfathers probably doesn’t compare with John Ford’s acknowledged classics, it is an accomplished piece of work that at least tops the second-tier of his output.
The simple story draws heavily on religious themes — far too heavily at times; the heavy-handed symbolism and references occasionally intrude on the plot, slowing its pace and distracting from the storyline.
John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and Harry Carey Jr. work well together as the three outlaws who promise to look after the new-born baby of a dying pregnant woman they stumble upon in the desert while on the run from Sheriff Ward Bond. Now, a giant pinch of salt needs to be taken at this point, because any viewer over the age of 12 will know that the last thing a group of desperadoes are going to saddle themselves with when on the run in the desert is a new-born infant. In fact, the main trio are just too nice to be outlaws for my liking — God-fearing, family-loving folk who just don’t ring true as cattle rustlers and bank robbers. Considering the Hays code dictated that they would all have to pay the price for their early crimes by the time the end credits roll, the film could have been given a lot more punch if the three of them had been a little bit meaner at the outset, thereby making their eventual redemption all the more powerful.
The location photography, as you would expect from a Ford western, is often stunning as we follow the increasingly desperate bandits through the Arizona desert as they head for the town of New Jerusalem.
Small, almost insignificant moments from this movie linger in the mind: John Wayne shielding Harry Carey Jr’s face from the sun with his hat; Armendariz timidly approaching the abandoned stagecoach in which Mildred Natwick is about to give birth; the dripping tap of a water tank in the middle of the desert (you can just feel the outlaws’ desperate thirst and disappointment as they watch that tap, knowing there is no way they can get at it). Wayne’s scenes as he struggles against exhaustion with the baby in his arms are also powerful.
I think this movie deserves a better reputation than it currently enjoys; it is sentimental — but only in the final five minutes, as far as I’m concerned. In fact, my only criticism would be the movie’s finale: too pat, and unbelievable. That said, it’s highly recommended.
(Reviewed 28th April 2002)