You have to hand it to John Wayne.
He was Made for the Movies, a figure of towering heroism even when his characters weren’t.
Watch him in 3 Godfathers (1948), a film about three outlaws who meet a pregnant woman stranded in the Arizona desert. A boy is born, the mother dies, and the outlaws face a Decision. Will they leave the newborn to die alongside his mother? Or will they take him to civilization where he can thrive, but where the men will be arrested?
When we first meet the woman, alone and abandoned by her husband, we realize she’s remarkably clearheaded about the future, for both her child and herself. Because one of the outlaws helps deliver her son, she enlists the three of them to be his godfathers. Given the circumstances, who could refuse? Certainly not these men, and they agree to care for the infant.
But it ain’t gonna be easy. The men, despite themselves, develop an immediate affection for the lil’ tyke, and for his sake, they embark on the traditional Hero’s Journey, an arduous quest that will transform them – if they survive it.
The twin themes in this film are water and redemption.
Thirst for water runs throughout the film, which is fitting and ironic, because there’s so little of it.
In one scene, the outlaws make their way to an artesian well in the desert, but they’re beaten to it by the sheriff (Ward Bond) and his deputies. We – along with the outlaws – watch one of the deputies fill his cup with water. He takes a drink and swishes it in his mouth before spitting it out and dumping the rest. In the desert, this simple act feels extravagant and wasteful; it almost makes you wince.
Since water is so rare, the movie tells us those who do not respect it are the worst kind of criminal because they do not value life.
Take, for example, the man who abandoned his pregnant wife early in the film. The outlaws find her at the site of another artesian well, one that her husband had ruined. The man had dynamited the well, causing it to collapse and rendering it useless for everyone.
The man’s ignorance of (or indifference to) water makes the three outlaws look saintly by comparison.
The longing for water also surfaces in other ways. For example, when one of the outlaws is wounded, he asks his friend to read him Psalm 137 a song of lament near the waters of Babylon.
Another example is the men’s trek across a dry salt lake bed. Their boots crunch against the cracked earth as they stumble across the heat and dryness, each step reminding us water is life.
3 Godfathers is based on the 1922 short story, “The Three Godfathers“, by Peter B. Kyne, which was adapted to the screen at least four times. One of these versions, Marked Men (1919)*, was directed by John Ford, who also directed the 1948 film.
Ford’s framing makes for beautiful and haunting images; nearly every shot is a work of art.
He’s also sentimental, and 3 Godfathers has scenes that border on the ludicrous. However, a person can overlook those because of the film’s second theme of forgiveness. It’s a message as relevant for our time as it was for a post-WWII audience.
If you’re looking for a different kind of holiday movie, try 3 Godfathers. It’s both idealistic and gritty, and offers an unusual interpretation of the nativity story.
This post is part of The 2nd Happy Holidays Blogathon, hosted by PEPS.
3 Godfathers: starring John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, Harry Carey Jr. Directed by John Ford. Written by Laurence Stallings & Frank S. Nugent. Argosy Pictures, 1948, Technicolor, 106 mins.