3 Godfathers (1948)

Directed by John Ford
Written by Laurence Stallings and Frank S. Nugent

Color! Believe it or not, as much as I like black and white films for their beauty and composition and nostalgia for a different era of filmmaking, seeing one of my westerns finally in color once again is a sight for sore eyes. I welcome black and white and look forward to many more in the format yet to come, but it just felt like it had been a minute since one of my western films had appeared in lush, beautiful color! And John Ford shoots 3 Godfathers in a very lush, bright manner in terms of his use of color. I can’t say I would be able to claim the film is enhanced by the use of color photography, but my own personal experience after wandering the black and white desert for many films was certainly enhanced.

Robert (John Wayne), Pedro (Pedro Armendariz) and William, or the Abilene Kid (Harry Carey, Jr.) wander into Welcome, Arizona with the intention of robbing a bank. But when they encounter the lawman, Pearly “Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond) and his wife, they have second thoughts. They pull the job anyway and are quickly pursued by Sweet and his posse of deputies. Wandering the Arizona desert in search of an unprotected watering hole, the three outlaws come across a woman stranded in a wagon, ready to give birth to a little boy. When the mother dies giving birth, the three men take it upon themselves to raise the young boy, now named Robert William Pedro after his defacto godfathers, and to get him to safety. This complicates their other goal: evade the law.

3 Godfathers certainly has a strange history. Ford dedicates the film to the recently passed Harry Carey, Sr., who starred in the original film adaptation of this story in 1916. Carey then remade the film as Marked Men with Ford in 1919. Even in more recent years the film was remade by Japanese animator Satoshi Kon as Tokyo Godfathers. But the film I remember is from this marathon, 3 Bad Men (1926), also directed by Ford. While searching Wikipedia, this film is not associated with the others, but I’ll be darned if it isn’t the exact same story, only without the Christmas-time connection. So what would compel a man, Ford, to make the same film 3 times!? Who really knows, but perhaps having the opportunity to make the film with three great stars in Harry Carey, George O’Brien and John Wayne was too great a temptation to pass up. Ultimately what ends up happening is I compare the two I’ve seen, and it doesn’t come out great for 3 Godfathers in that debate.

There is simply something “off” with 3 Godfathers, and I think, believe it or not, it has a lot to do with John Wayne, who I feel is severely miscast in this role. It is a lighter, sweeter, funnier role, and while I don’t want to say he doesn’t have that in him (just look at A Lady Takes a Chance), I will say that he sticks out like a sore thumb in this film, unable to hang with the type or brand of comedy that Ford is going for in this “fish-out-of-water” story. Three hardened outlaws caring for a baby? Hilarious scenario, and one that works really well in 3 Bad Men, but one problem I have always had with John Ford is his sense of humor, which has never quite clicked for me. The comedy here, which is the majority of what Ford is going for I believe, is a big miss for me, making it a rather disappointing effort.

This is John Ford’s sixth film in my westerns marathon, and it is quite easily the lowest rated of the six. With ten more of his films still on deck, I am quite certain he will regain his legendary status, but I think perhaps there is a chance 3 Godfathers finishes as my least liked film of his. I mean, I don’t hate it. There is a sweetness to it, and the religious allegory is nifty, if not a little too on-the-nose, with three men journeying for the sake of a baby on the eve of Christmas. But all in all it was a difficult film to truly enjoy. I wonder what the film would look like with a different leading man, Henry Fonda perhaps? I wonder what compelled Ford to remake this film one more time? I wonder why more people don’t check out 3 Bad Men instead, because they really ought to. It’s the superior film.

★★ 1/2 – Average

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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