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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
22 Jul 2023

NextImg:Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘3 Godfathers’

NR | 1 h 45 min | Drama, Western | 1948

Several 20th-century filmmakers, among them notably John Ford, took turns bringing Peter B. Kyne’s novella “The Three Godfathers” to the screen: a Westernized retelling of the timeless Biblical Christmas tale of the Three Wise Men.

Three robbers flee a posse of Arizona lawmen across a desert, led by Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond). The outlaws, Bob (John Wayne), Pete/Pedro (Pedro Armendáriz) and Bill (Harry Carey Jr.), come across a pregnant widow in a deserted horse-wagon and, reluctantly, help deliver her baby boy.

Ford’s scenes of swearing-in deputies, convey contrasting mandates of masculinity. Sweet swears in armed cowboys. The dying mother swears in fugitives as godfathers of her child.

A dying mother (Mildred Natwick) gives her newborn to outlaw Bob (John Wayne), in “3 Godfathers.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Saddled with an infant and robbed of their horses by hostile desert elements, the men are shadows of the ambitious, arrogant robbers they were. They carry and care for the child, braving hunger, thirst, injury, fatigue, and fierce desert heat and wind.

Ford’s plot is pacific, his storytelling is trite in parts, and the only semblance of action is a robbery-chase sequence. There’s little, except the miraculous birth of a child in an impossible wilderness, to explain why hardened criminals have so sudden, so stark a change of heart. Still, the film brims with meaning.

The familiar Western melody “The Streets of Laredo” salutes the promise of goodness in the cowboy “wrapped in white linen” (a lifetime of choices now unfulfilled) and bemoans its betrayal by the cowboy who knows he’s “done wrong” (after a lifetime of unwise choices).

Ford shuns close-ups in favor of long and extra-long shots of the trio on horseback, on foot, on their bellies, on their backs, atop and below proud sand dunes. He shows them longing for little spots of water, then lamenting the lack of them.

(L–R) Outlaws Bob (John Wayne), Pete/Pedro (Pedro Armendariz), and Bill (Harry Carey Jr.) find inspiration in the Bible, in “3 Godfathers.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Bereft of an obvious villain, the desert becomes a character, its parched features set like stone against these men, working out their redemption through their enforced exodus. Like some divine force, it cleanses intent and thought and clarifies action. Ford likens their exodus to a spiritual marathon that forces them to shed what may slow them down: saddles, horses, gun belts, guns, and eventually, their hats. They end up shedding their egos, too.

By earthly reckoning, the outlaws are foolish: bearing a wounded Bill for company, accepting the baby as a blessing rather than a burden, saving water for the baby rather than for themselves. But because they’re willing, humble hostages to holiness, captured here in the baby’s innocence, their foolishness turns to wisdom.

Hats overshadow guns as symbols of masculinity. Bob stretches out his hat to shield wounded Bill from the scorching sun, and removes his hat, and unbuckles his gun belt, before entering the wagon to reassure the dying mother. He shows manly regret, respect, restraint, and resolve in the way he handles his hat.

Richard Hageman’s hymnal score consecrates moments, such as the one where Pedro enters the wagon to aid in childbirth. Ford’s camera treats the wagon as a temple hosting something sacred, just as the woman prone in it, hosts a sacred life.

Here, thirst represents a longing for love, but even water doesn’t quench it. Bob hacks at a cactus to extract water droplets for the baby; his thirst, now quenched by sacrificing, not stealing. The men have spent their lifetimes stealing, but it’s the baby here who steals their hearts, relying on nothing but his frail cry to persuade them that the promise of life is as important as life itself.

Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), in 3 Godfathers.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

For all his cinematic sermonizing about how crucial men are as procreators, providers, and protectors, Ford stresses how crucial women are in nursing, nurturing, and nourishing. A nearly 10-minute sequence shows the three men fumbling, not knowing what to do with the baby, how and in what sequence. With not a woman in sight, Ford hails a woman’s vital role in conception, childbearing, childbirth, and childcare.

Kyne’s story redefines equality; it isn’t the absence of dependence, sometimes it’s meaningful, contextualized interdependence. The very idea of a godparent acknowledges how fleeting our lives are, how fragile we are, and how it’s no bad thing if godparents intervene when parents are unable or unwilling to parent as they should.

A woman isn’t inferior because she’s dependent on her man (such as when she’s pregnant) any more than a baby is inferior because he’s dependent on a parent. If someone as exalted as God (as a babe) isn’t demeaned by being at the mercy of human providence and protection, humans shouldn’t take umbrage when forced to count on each other.

Poster for “3 Godfathers.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

“3 Godfathers” can be watched on Vudu, Prime Video, and Apple TV.

‘3 Godfathers’
Director: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, Harry Carey Jr.
Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 1, 1948
Rated: 3 stars out of 5

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