About Christmas TV History

Friday, June 28, 2013

3 Godfathers (1948)

1948's 3 Godfathers stars John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and Harry Carey, Jr. as the three outlaws Robert, Pete, and the Kid respectively.

Are you someone who thinks all movie re-makes suffer from low-quality efforts and laziness?  I challenge you to think again.   I've already discussed 1930's Hell's Heroes and 1936's Three Godfathers.  Did you know that the master of western films, director John Ford, also took on this story set at Christmas?  3 Godfathers is another film adapted from the book by Peter B. Kyne and airs regularly on TCM, especially at Christmas time.

One of the several significant changes in this film adaptation is that it is made in color!

Again we have the same essential plot, three bank robbers attempt to evade capture by riding out into the desert but find themselves without sufficient drinking water.  When Robert, the Kid, and Pete stumble across a dying woman with a newborn, they are burdened with the improbable task of saving the baby, as well as themselves, from the desert heat and lack of water. 

The three fugitives make a daring escape on two horses being followed by a posse.

When the posse is made up of western film stars such as (right to left) Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and Hank Worden--John Wayne's character Robert begins to feel the heat.

There are a few changes--some more significant than others.  One thrilling change is that the three bank robbers are followed out of town by a posse, led by Marshal Perley Sweet, played by Ward Bond.  The marshal organizes and deputizes a group of residents that set out into the desert to head-off the outlaws at the two closest water sources located at the train depots.  It becomes a game of cat-and-mouse as the fugitives' leader Robert and the marshal try to cleverly anticipate each others' next moves towards the limited resources of drinkable water in the Arizona desert.  This addition of a posse out hunting for the outlaws adds tension and suspense to the story--and a few extra characters.

With her dying breath, the mother names her newborn son Robert William Pedro Hightower.  She also insists the three men promise to take responsibility as the baby's three godfathers.

Another change is the moral character of the fugitives' leader, Robert Hightower, played by Wayne.  In Hell's Heroes and Three Godfathers, the lead character is more despicable, a violent killer, a bank robber--and the most hesitant of the three men to take responsibility for the baby.  His demise is inevitable because of his "flaws," yet his redemption is found in his sacrifice to save the innocent baby.  But Robert Hightower is different.  Before the bank robbery, his guilt is lessened by his repeated warnings of not wanting to shoot anyone.  Robert also seems to be looking out for his younger friend, William "the Kid."  After promising the dying mother that he will care for his godson, Robert hesitates but is willing to care for the baby.  He really doesn't seem like such a bad guy despite being a bank robber.  Adding complexity to the human drama, the posse following close behind the three men, begins to heap further crimes upon the fugitives--such as murdering the woman in the covered wagon and poisoning a watering hole--actions for which we know they are not guilty.

Just ahead of the posse, Robert delivers the baby to the residents of Jerusalem causing them to burst into the song "Silent Night."

Because the character of Robert is not as morally flawed, he doesn't need to seek the same level of redemption as the corresponding characters did in Hell's Heroes and Three Godfathers.  In fact, Robert doesn't die at the end of the movie!  Thirsty and exhausted, Robert stumbles back to civilization and delivers the baby--not at a church--but to the people gathered in a local saloon.  With the posse right behind him, Robert collapses on the floor but doesn't die.  The movie continues as we see Robert standing before the court ready to receive the sentence for his crimes.  But when Robert refuses to give up permanent custody of the baby in order to lessen his jail sentence, the judge respects the man's integrity and gives him a very short sentence!  It turns out that Robert has earned the respect of the marshal and everyone else in town for his bravery in saving the baby--and they encourage him to return to town when his prison term is over.  What kind of Christmas movie would this be without a happy ending?  Actually, movies like Hell's Heroes and Three Godfathers include the theme of sacrifice which is certainly a common Christmas element.  However, 3 Godfathers includes not only a happy ending but the opportunity of a second chance--also two very common Christmas themes.

The three wise godfathers follow the star in the night sky across the desert.

Beyond this, the film has many Christmas references.  Not only is it set at Christmas time but William "the Kid" points out the connection between the three fugitives from the east and the three wandering magi in the original story of the Nativity.  The Kid also takes a Bible found in the covered wagon and uses it to guide their journey.  Citing a passage he finds when the spiritual book falls open, The Kid instructs the other two fugitives that they have a destiny to fulfill in going to the nearby city of Jerusalem.  Later, after Robert finds himself alone in the desert and unable to continue any further, he finds in the Bible a passage that says the Christmas journey was made with a donkey and a burro--the two animals that suddenly stand before him.  As if by faith or a miracle, the weakened and thirsty Robert is able to ride the donkey with the burro back to the nearest town of Jerusalem and his destiny is complete--the baby survives.  Perhaps Robert's willingness to follow his faith in his time of despair is another reason he doesn't die in the end?  Maybe.  However you choose to read this film, it sure feels Christmas-y.

That's no blizzard--that's a sandstorm but cleverly in this film they look alike.

Making it seem even more closely related to the holiday season, this Western film offers gorgeous desert landscapes courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer Winton Hoch.  Hoch cleverly makes the desert’s blowing sand look just like snow.  You'll also see dunes that look like drifts and a sand storm that looks like a blizzard.  If you watch this movie during the month of December, the comparison will be overwhelming.  Overall, the effect makes this story feel more like the Christmas holidays.

Up next: another story that takes its inspiration from Peter B. Kyne's original story, the feature-length animated movie Tokyo Godfathers.

1 comment:

  1. Robert's lack of death at the end is what ruins this version.