Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Mae Marsh, Mildred Natwick, Jane Darwell, Guy Kibbee, Dorothy Ford, Ben Johnson, Charles Halton, Hank Worden, Jack Pennick, Fred Libby, Michael Dugan
Written by: Laurence Stallings, Frank S. Nugent, based on a story by Peter B. Kyne
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 106
Date: 12/01/1948

3 Godfathers (1948)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wise Men

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

John Ford and Christmas seems like a perfect combo, and yet the old master included Christmas themes in only two films, a scene of a Hawaiian Christmas in Donovan's Reef (1963), and 3 Godfathers (1948). The latter was based on a 1913 novel by Peter B. Kyne, which has been filmed many times (including the very good anime version Tokyo Godfathers). The story is a fairly obvious allegory for the Three Wise Men who journey to see the baby Jesus, but with Ford's poetic touch, a sentimental story turns into a very solid, color Western.

John Wayne stars as Robert Hightower, one of a trio of cattle ranchers-turned-bank robbers. His partners are Pedro Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William "The Abilene Kid" Kearney (Harry Carey Jr.). (The movie is dedicated to the memory of Carey's father.) On their way into town to rob the bank, they have a friendly chat with Perley 'Buck' Sweet (Ward Bond), who turns out to be the sheriff. The trio pulls off the robbery, but Buck shoots their water bag and they find themselves in the desert with no way to quench their thirst. Buck has men stationed at every nearby water hole. While working on this dilemma (squeezing cactus for a few precious drops), they come upon a wagon. A man has died, and his pregnant wife (Mildred Natwick) lies dying. She gives birth and names the three men godfathers for the child, naming it after all three.

Now, in addition to surviving in the desert, the men must figure out how to care for the baby, including changing diapers (shown in a delightfully poetic shot). The movie is more tragic and bittersweet than it may seem at first, but Ford keeps a delicate balance throughout, including -- of course -- a satisfying ending. It's interesting, in hindsight, how Ford manages to generate such sympathy for the bank robbers while turning the lawmen into bad guys. One scene takes place in a bar, decorated for Christmas, and with a piano player giving an appropriate rendition of "Silent Night." Mae Marsh co-stars as Buck's wife. Former New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent co-wrote the screenplay, his second after Fort Apache.

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