#41 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
A remake of a 1916 film starring Harry Carey, one of the earliest movie stars in general and star of several of John Ford’s earliest features, including Westerns, 3 Godfathers is an easy entertainment filled with winning performances and a nice tribute to the passed movie star by a long-time friend.
The titular godfathers are three bandits, Bob (John Wayne), Pedro (Pedro Armendariz), and The Abilene Kid (Harry Carey Jr.) who go into Welcome, Arizona Territory with the plan on robbing the bank there. A lot of my smallish issues with the film are here. All three, anchored by John Wayne in full likeable mode, are just way too good at the beginning. These are good guys by every indication except for their plan to rob the bank (not nothing, of course). They’re affable and fun to be around. The impression we get at the beginning is that they’re not really bad people at all. This is kind of what happens when you don’t trust John Wayne to be an actor, which Ford apparently really didn’t think until later in the year when he saw Howard Hawks’ Red River for the first time. He trusted John Wayne to be affable.
Anyway, the opening is dominated by the trio stopping at the house of Buck Sweet (Ward Bond) and talking with him affably, making light fun of his name and making themselves known (a weird tactic for a trio of men planning on robbing the bank in a few minutes). It gets a bit more dangerous when they realize that he’s the sheriff, and then they just go ahead and rob the bank anyway. This opening is really my least favorite part of the movie. It’s nice and lightly entertaining, but it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and, most importantly, it starts our supposedly bad men too well. They’re too good for the journey they’re about to take.
Well, they do rob the bank, the Abilene Kid gets shot in the arm, but they manage to get away after Buck shoots their water supply. The trio have to figure out a way to get away from the pursuing sheriff and towards water in the desert. Headed off in every direction by a man who can use rail, they head in an unexpected direction and encounter a seemingly abandoned wagon by a water source dynamited into uselessness. In the wagon is the pregnant wife of the man who killed himself trying to dynamite the water source into flowing, and she’s about to give birth. The trio work together to deliver the baby successfully, and the mother names him after the three (Robert William Pedro) before dying and getting a promise from them that they will deliver the child to civilization, making all three the boy’s godfathers.
So begins the real story of the film, the act of taking this child back to civilization and redeeming themselves for their wicked pasts. And here’s where my problem with the easy opening of the film really manifests. They weren’t that bad, so the trials and tribulations they go through, cutting up cacti to get water, walking across a salt lake, and two of the three dying along the way, end up feeling like a heavy moral weight for who they were. Yes, they robbed a bank, but the impression the movie made of the three was that they were nice guys from the start who just happened to rob a bank and never hurt anyone. The journey would have worked better if they had started the film as real bastards, finding redemption through their act of saving a child. I think it would have also worked better if John Wayne’s Bob, as the last to survive, had actually died delivering the baby to New Jerusalem. If this journey is about the sacrifice he needs to make to redeem himself as a person, offering up his own life to safe the life of an innocent is the place to go. Instead, the movie goes the easy way out and lets him survive.
The way the movie goes about all of this (affable opening, trying task, and survival of the main character with diminished sentence at trial because of his good deed) isn’t bad. It’s entertaining pretty through and through, but it doesn’t really seem to take the material where I feel like it needs to go. Thinking of the movie we actually got instead of the one in my head, though, I really do enjoy this film. It’s easy, light entertainment anchored by a very nice performance from John Wayne and handsomely directed in color by John Ford. After the complexities of Fort Apache, though, it’s a bit of a shock. Even the use of images, making the three men like the Three Kings who visited the baby Jesus, is really on the nose. In my review for Fort Apache I noted that subtly works when talking about the effectiveness of a particular scene. Here, there’s no real subtlety. It’s actually pretty blunt.
And it mostly works. It’s fine. It’s entertaining and amusing. I just could have been more.