Bob Hightower (John Wayne, Rio Grande), Pete Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendáriz, Fort Apache), and “The Abilene Kid” (Harry Carey Jr., Red River) come to the town of Welcome, Arizona to rob a bank. Things get off to a bad start when they unknowingly strike up a conversation with the local Sheriff, Perley “Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond, The Searchers) and give him their real names. They get worse when the locals shoot the Kid (and their water skin) on the way out-of-town. Soon the trio are journeying through the desert with Buck not only on their trail, but anticipating their next moves by stationing his posse at the nearest water sources. Bob figures out Buck’s plan and heads for a remote watering hole-but when he gets there he finds the watering hole destroyed by a tender foot, who left his pregnant wife (Mildred Natwick, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) alone while he went for help.
Pete does what he can to help the mother, but it is not enough. Before she dies she makes all three men Robert William Pedro’s godfathers and swears them to protect the boy. After some debate the Kid, beginning to be delirious from his gunshot wound, convinces the group to head 60 miles to the town of New Jerusalem. Can the three men bring their charge to safety, and will Buck pause long enough when he finds them to find out what really happened?
3 Godfathers feels like two separate movies. There’s the serious western, which starts with the three characters riding into town to rob the bank, and then there’s the more sentimental story of three bad men who are redeemed by taking care of a child. The two halves work together for much of the run time (though viewers turned off by Ford’s sentimentalist side would do well to avoid this film) but the ill fitting happy ending loaded with corn hurts the film. One wonders if the original novel or earlier adaptations of it used the Three Kings references to greater effect-here they make very little sense, as the Godfathers save a dying woman’s baby, and, at great cost to themselves, follow a star to bring it back to the town she came from, even though “Welcome, Arizona” is much closer to them.
The weakness of the third act is a real shame, as the first two are quite strong. Ward Bond gives one of his best performances as Sheriff Sweet, going from an almost comic figure to a crafty hunter to a man bent on vengeance. Wayne’s performance hints at his role in The Searchers, especially in a scene where he explains to his compatriots the predicament the mother is in. Ford’s supporting cast is full of the usual faces, doing what they do best. The film is beautiful, with an impressive sandstorm sequence, and some terrific shots such as Pedro looking into the wagon and framed by its outline.
3 Godfathers is not one of Ford’s best films, but it is a solid Western that will reward viewers who are fans of Ford, Wayne, or who are interested in the history of Western films.