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about the writer

A member of the National Society of Film Critics, James Verniere has a master's degree in English literature from Rutgers University. He has been the film critic for the Boston Herald since 1986 and has also written for Film Comment and Sight & Sound.


3 Godfathers
By James Verniere

3 GodfathersAn emotional sucker punch delivered by an expert brawler, 3 Godfathers (1948) may be John Ford's most Capra-esque effort, which is perhaps why some Ford fans dismiss it and how it spawned the cornball hit 3 Men and a Baby (1987), the latter a remake of Coline Serreau's box-office winner 3 hommes et un couffin (1985). But after seeing Ford's allegorical Western as a child, I have never forgotten it, especially scenes of John Wayne's failed bank robber Robert Hightower, struggling under a blazing southwest desert sun, cradling a newborn in his arms. Not since the "sun's anvil" sequence in David Lean's Arabian desert-set adventure epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) have I experienced such vicarious thirst at the movies.

Dedicated to the memory of Ford's beloved leading man Harry Carey ("Bright Star of the early western sky"), who died in 1947, 3 Godfathers is a sound and color remake of Ford's lost 1919 silent film Marked Men, which starred Carey as "saddle tramp" Cheyenne Harry, a Western character Carey had played many times in Universal B-movies, most of them directed by a young Ford. Both films are based on the 1913 bestseller The Three Godfathers by the San Francisco-born writer Peter B. Kyne. Also based on Kyne's story are Edward Le Saint's Three Godfathers (1916) also with Carey, William Wyler's Hell's Heroes (1929), an early sound film Wyler made for his uncle Carl Laemmle's company, and Richard Boleslawski's Three Godfathers (1936) with Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan. The earliest version was apparently Gilbert M. "Bronco Billy" Anderson's Bronco Billy and the Baby (1915).

Ford's 3 Godfathers opens at Christmastime, as three desperados — Robert Marmaduke Hightower (Wayne), Pedro "Pete" Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and eager young gunslinger William Kearney, a.k.a. "The Abilene Kid" (Harry Carey Jr.) - botch a bank robbery in the town of Welcome and flee. A posse headed by Ward Bond's dogged Sheriff Perley "Buck" Sweet (and featuring Ben Johnson, who would go on to become a fixture of Sam Peckinpah westerns) follows the fugitives in hot pursuit. In Death Valley's wasteland of salt flats and sand dunes (also the setting for the closing shots of Greed [1924]), the outlaws encounter a woman (Mildred Natwick), who gives birth and just before dying makes the men swear to be the child's godfathers.

Shot in Technicolor by three-time Academy award winner Winton C. Hoch, who would go on to shoot four more films for Ford, the film is a darkly comical, redemptive fable and reconfiguration of the biblical tale of the Three Wise Men tranplanted from the Middle East to the American West. These new American wise men are anything but wise. They're more like the Three Stooges at some times and variations of the "good thief" Dismas at others. But it is their inherent goodness, brilliantly characterized by Ford and writers Laurence Stallings and Frank S. Nugent as a form of masculine-ized maternalism, that Ford wants to celebrate and poke fun at.

Some viewers are put off by the film's weighty symbolism, frequent prayers and the use of the Christmas carol "Silent Night" and the traditional hymns "Bringing in the Sheaves" and "Beautiful River" ("Shall We Gather at the River"). But the prayers and hymns link many viewers to their childhood selves. The music, with its power to evoke the newborn savior, the spiritual value of physical labor and the promise of a reunion with lost loved ones, is especially affecting.

3 Godfathers may have its share of bunk and hokum. But the film also has a dark side, particularly in Ford's Irish-Catholic equation of redemption and physical agony. On that level, 3 Godfathers is a kind of biblical ritual-ordeal in the wilderness. One could alternately also argue that the conversion of Will is a by-product of blood loss and heatstroke.

But, in essence, the film is a demonstration of Ford's storytelling genius and a kind of tumbleweed comedy, from its "baptism of grease" to its ending with Bob and Perley squabbling over who'll be parent to young "Robert William Pedro Hightower" and the prettiest girl in town mooning over Bob as he goes off to serve his light 1-year-and-1-day sentence. As the unschooled, innately "wise" jury foreman observed earlier, Bob was guilty of robbing a bank. But after all, there were "exterminating circumstances" to consider.

Watching 3 Godfathers for the first time in years, I was struck by Wayne's gunman-as-arrested-child routine, the way he telegraphs Bob's paternal streak before the bank robbery and the actor's physical grace in spite of his size. Armendariz, "the Clark Gable of Mexico," who would be unforgettable as Ali Kerem Bey in From Russia with Love (1963) on the eve of his premature death that year, displays his marvelous horsemanship and a tender chivalry in his scenes with the dying woman. Carey, then an uncertain actor being coached by Ford and Wayne, glows with fever and fervor as the dying youth who finds comfort and a kind of locusts-and-honey sainthood in the woman's bible.

We've seen this outlaw-turned-good guy trope in such films as James Edward Grant's Angel and the Bad Man (1947), George Stevens's Shane (1953), Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and many others. It's been a favorite theme of Eastwood especially, most recently in modern guise in his 2008 hit Gran Torino.

It seems that, like Eastwood, the world just can't get enough of those "exterminating circumstances."

James Verniere

3 Godfathers




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