Friday, June 20, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: 3 GODFATHERS (1948)

John Ford offers a distinctly Western take on the Christmas story in 3 Godfathers (1948), where there’s no sign of the usual snow and comfortable holiday cheer. In their place we witness the parched terrain of the desert frontier and a grueling journey by our protagonists, three not so very bad men struggling to save an orphaned newborn even though they are on the run from the law. As usual, much of the appeal of a John Ford picture stems from its cast, with John Wayne leading a collection of the usual suspects, including Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., Jane Darwell, and Mildred Natwick. With Ford’s characteristic blend of toughness and sentiment and a visual style bursting with religious iconography, 3 Godfathers delivers a surprisingly soulful tribute to the original story of the three wise men, but Western devotees will find it worthwhile at any time of year.

Wayne leads a trio of cattle rustlers turned bank robbers as Robert Hightower, with the Mexican Pete (Pedro Armendáriz) and the boyish Abilene Kid (Harry Carey, Jr.) as his accomplices. The three men ride into Welcome, Arizona, and accidentally make small talk with the sheriff (Ward Bond) and his wife (Mae Marsh) before robbing the bank, and their luck only gets worse from there. As the sheriff’s posse cuts them off from all sources of water, Hightower and his gang are forced to run ever deeper into the desert, where they find a dying woman who places her newborn son under their protection. The three men put the child’s welfare before their own to fulfill their promise to his mother, but they have little hope of saving themselves, much less the helpless baby.

As he had in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) nearly a decade earlier, Wayne plays an outlaw with a sentimental side, but his tribulation in the desert suggests that Hightower still has some penance to pay for his sins. The pervasive themes of the picture deal with redemption, self-sacrifice, and the symbolic importance of water, a precious commodity in both the American wilderness and the land of the Israelites. Musical cues reinforce these elements, from the mournful lament of “Streets of Laredo” to “Shall We Gather at the River.” The camera dwells on the relentless heat of the arid frontier, the drops of water falling on the baby’s face, and the image of a derelict wagon sitting forlornly beside a hopelessly broken tank. Wayne’s best scenes occur in the extremity of these moments, especially when he returns from his first visit to the wagon and the useless water tank. The film has many dark episodes, but that is the worst of the lot, as Hightower sits contemplating the countless lives that will be lost because of one man’s foolish actions. For that man there is no redemption; even his wife rejects him by naming her baby Robert William Pedro Hightower, after the three men who arrive just in time to help the child be born. Bob Hightower, whose paternal nature has already revealed itself in his behavior toward the wounded Kid, becomes a true father in that moment, and his arc toward salvation begins.

Ford’s regular supporting players are all in fine form, with Ward Bond enjoying an especially meaty role as the sheriff, Perley Sweet. Harry Carey, Jr. is a credit to his father, to whom the picture is dedicated, with his performance as the sweet-natured William, whose outlaw title as the Abilene Kid contrasts with his inherent goodness and faith. At 43, Mildred Natwick is more than a decade too old for her character, and she only has one big scene, but she really knows how to make it count. Other reliable Ford actors in the background include Jane Darwell, Ben Johnson, and Hank Worden. In addition we get the delightful Pedro Armendáriz and silent film veteran Mae Marsh. Armendáriz proves quite the scene-stealer with his exuberant personality, while Marsh makes a good counterpart to Ward Bond as the sheriff’s wife, especially in the final scenes.

Fans of the Western are sure to appreciate the film’s opening tribute to Harry Carey, who died in 1947. For more of John Ford, John Wayne, and the Ford crowd of characters, see Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956). Ford also directed powerhouse classics like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Mae Marsh is best remembered as the doomed sister in The Birth of a Nation (1915), but she actually has uncredited roles in a number of Ford pictures, and both she and Pedro Armendáriz appear in Fort Apache. Be sure to catch the late-career performances of Harry Carey, Jr. in The Long Riders (1980), Gremlins (1984), and especially The Whales of August (1987).