Thursday 6 February 2014

Movie Review: 3 Godfathers (1948)

A western Christmas parable, 3 Godfathers is an absorbing tale of redemption. Director John Ford and star John Wayne deliver a spirited story of three bandits finding their purpose in life after stumbling upon an expectant mother in the desert.

Robert (Wayne), Pedro (Pedro Armendariz) and William "The Abilene Kid" (Harry Carey, Jr.) are cattle rustlers who unwisely decide to graduate into robbing banks. They ride into the small town of Welcome, Arizona, and unwittingly meet Marshall Perley "Buck" Sweet (Ward Bond) before hitting the local bank. In the ensuing melee, William is shot in the arm. Buck rounds up a posse and gives chase into the unforgiving desert.

The gang are soon struggling with dwindling water supplies, as Buck deploys deputies at key water resupply stations along the rail tracks. Forced into a long trek across the open desert, Robert, Pedro and William arrive at a depleted well where an expectant mother (Mildred Natwick), about to deliver, has been abandoned. The men help the nameless woman give birth to a baby boy, and with her dying breath she appoints them as the baby's godfathers, and names the child Robert William Pedro. The three men now need to battle thirst, evade the determined Buck, and keep a newborn infant alive in the desert.

Towards the end, 3 Godfathers does start to layer on the religious symbolism in gooey dollops. Mysterious mules, the Bible, a shining star, and the town of New Jerusalem all enter the fray as the young baby treks across the desert in the arms of three not so wise but quite determined men. The screenplay by Laurence Stallings and Frank S. Nugent veers towards a mishmash of Christmas metaphors, and loses a bit of its grittiness.

When focusing on themes of survival and atonement, 3 Godfathers is excellent. Robert, Pedro and William are making all the wrong choices and heading towards ever more violent crimes. Life offers them one miracle shot to do better, and they grasp it, but clumsily. The trio never consider not running from the law; they just decide to continue their attempted escape with a baby in tow. Only after reaching the limits of suffering is the baby delivered back to civilization, the godfathers having incurred significant losses along the way.

Ford captures the desolation of the desert as a vast and unforgiving environment. The film is a visual feast of yellow and brown, the endless sand dunes, cracked dried lakes, and severe wind storms ganging up on the three men, daring them to go any further. 3 Godfathers is a struggle for survival, made all the more daunting when a helpless infant joins the group.

Wayne is a majestic presence, Robert Marmaduke Hightower taking on the law, the desert and the responsibility for his partners and then the child on his broad shoulders. Robert does not give up his outlaw essence, but he is a bandit with a heart, a close friend to Pedro and never abandoning the wounded William. Armendariz and Carey, Jr. offer sturdy support, while Ward Bond as Buck offers a weighty adversary opposite Robert's resolve.

Big things sometimes come in small packages, and in 3 Godfathers a tiny baby becomes the immense addition to the lives of three hardened men suddenly exposed to what really matters.

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