John Ford’s 3 GODFATHERS is a nice Christmas western. It takes place in the desert and the titleistical trio of outlaws are dying of thirst for most of it, but it’s mentioned that it’s Christmas time, and there are allusions to the three wisemen, the star, and other aspects of the Nativity story.
Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro “Pete” Rocafuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William “The Abeline Kid” Kearney (and introducing Harry Carey, Jr.) are riding into the small town of Welcome to rob a bank, but they stop to make fun of a guy (Ward Bond, RIO BRAVO, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) because the name on his house says “B. Sweet.” He goes by Buck, but his wife calls him “Perley” in front of them and they think that’s a hilariously “perty name” too. They’re being mean, but Mrs. Sweet (Mae Marsh, BIRTH OF A NATION) brings them coffee, makes small talk about where they’re from and growing up with red hair, and also mention to important plot points (the location of a watering hole and that there’s a town called New Jerusalem).
It’s all nice and good until Sweet puts on his vest and everybody sees his sheriff’s badge. Everybody puts on their “oh this” faces except Sweet, who puts on his “yeah, that’s right, I know what you dipshits are up to” face.
So he’s there when they try to rob the bank, and he’s the one puts together a posse to track them through the desert. On the initial chase he lets them get away, saying “They ain’t payin me to kill folks.” But he does shoot a hole in their canteen, which gives him a good idea of where they’ll go next. For most of the movie they’re trying to figure out which water source they can get to and Sweet is trying to get ahead of them.
This escape is not going well. First they lose their horses and end up on foot. Then they get to the water hole and they can’t believe what they find. Some dumb bastard tried to get the water pump going using dynamite. He ruined the hole, died, and left his pregnant wife (Mildred Natwick, THE QUIET MAN) alone in their wagon. So there’s your fatherless birth if you’re looking for your biblical parallels.
Robert finds out the whole story and tells the others about it without us seeing it. Kinda giving the lady reverence like unseen Jesus in BEN-HUR. He makes Pedro go in and deliver the baby (since he has kids he knows the most about it). We never see her until after the baby is born and she asks them to come in so she can beg them to take care of the kid. To be godfathers. Get him out of the desert. To butter them up she names the baby Robert William Pedro.
I like how the wagon is shot to remind you of a manger scene.
Like many John Wayne characters, Robert is kind of like a big kid pretending to be a man. He knows more about cattle rustling and robbing banks than normal adult life. The three of them bumble through taking care of the baby using a book found inside the wagon as instructions. William finds a Bible and reads about the Three Magi, comparing their situation to it as they follow a star to New Jerusalem. And later there’s a miraculous donkey involved. Meta.
Though it’s a movie about three men and a baby potentially dying of thirst, it’s got lots of humor and warmth. Jane Darwell (MARY POPPINS) has a funny role as a lady who likes flirting with the posse members. There’s a nice bond between the three outlaws, and the sad parts are touching. They have a funeral for the mother, and William sings the one song they know between them. When William (SPOILER) dies, Robert holds his hat up to the sun, creating some shade for him. When Pete (SPOILER) has to be left behind, he tells Robert “Feliz Navidad.”
Also, this is supposed to be a hallucination in my opinion and not The Force, but I like this RETURN OF THE JEDI business that happens near the end. Also it kind of reminds me of the end of The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland when the hitchhiking ghosts get in your Doom Buggy with you.
There’s also a nice bond between cops and robbers, as the friendly interaction at the beginning has shown Sweet their humanity, and vice versa. There’s tension about whether that can last.
A technical note: obviously they’re just carrying around a wad of blankets, but I was impressed by the frequent baby inserts, where they have close ups of an actual very young baby being touched by hands that look convincingly John Wayne-esque.
The story comes from a book by Peter B. Kyne that was already adapted by Ford as MARKED MEN in 1919 and ACTION in 1921 (both now lost), as well as William Wyler’s 1930 HELL’S HEROES and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1936 THREE GODFATHERS, and later the anime TOKYO GODFATHERS (2003). Wikipedia claims the Walker, Texas Ranger episode “A Ranger Christmas” is also loosely based on it.
MARKED MEN starred Harry Carey, so in addition to introducing his son to movies this one opens with a dedication “To the Memory of Harry Carey, ‘Bright Star of the early western sky…'”
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So anyway, Merry Christmas or otherwise to everyone reading. I hope you know how much I appreciate all of you. We’ve gone through alot this year, but just like always we’ll continue to encourage each other and we’ll find some good will, merriment, jolliness and what not in this barren world. We’ll convert Scrooges and grow Grinch hearts and plow the Polar Express 3D Imax straight into a better 2017. Beer’s to you, old amigos.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.