Three Godfathers (1948): John Ford’s Symbolic Western in Technicolor, Starring John Wayne

John Ford had directed one of the three previous film versions of Peter Kyne’s novel in 1919, titled “Marked Men,” with Harry Carey Sr., a great star of the silent era.  Ford dedicated the new film, which starred Carey Sr.’s son, to the vet actor, who died in 1948.

The tale was also filmed in 1936 by Richard Boleslawski with Chester Morris in the Carey part.

The story’s Christian symbolism has always appealed to the director’s conservative political and religious sensibility.  Ford decided to remake the story, which was scripted Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings, in Technicolor.

John Wayne, at the peak of his career after starring in Hawks’ “Red River,” plays Bob Hightower, the leader of a trio of thieves who rob a bank in Arizona and take off with the posse of Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond) in close pursuit.

Though they need to stop to water their horses and care for the wounds of Abilene (Harry Carey Jr.), their suspicion that the sheriff is laying an ambush for them at the Mohave water tank leads the gang toward the more distant Terrapin tanks.

However, en route, they’re waylaid by a terrible sandstorm which scatters their horses. Forced to go on foot, they come upon a lone woman (Mildred Natwick) in a covered wagon who is about to give birth. She dies in childbirth, but not before extracting a promise from the three to take care of her child.  In the last scene, living up to their promise, the trio head for New Jerusalem.

Detailed Plot

Robert Hightower (Wayne), Pedro “Pete” Rocafuerte (Armendariz), and William Kearney (Carey Jr.), cattle rustlers, rob a bank in Welcome, Arizona.  When Kearney suffers a bullet wound, they have to flee into the desert, pursued by the posse of Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), who puts a bullet in their water bag.

After losing their horses in a desert storm, they begin walking–and walking. In their search for water, they come across a water hole, destroyed by a bumbling tenderfoot.  In a wagon close by, his wife (and the Sheriff’s niece), is pregnant and about to give birth. With the help of the trio, she has a boy, whom she names Robert William Pedro after her benefactors. Before dying, she makes his three godfathers vow to take care of him. Moved by her plight, the three amigos uphold their promise despite harsh condition and water lack.

Sheriff Sweet’s posse begins a pursuit, and the trio leave with the baby for New Jerusalem. After crossing a salt flat, William dies of exhaustion and injury; later, Pete falls and breaks his leg. Robert leaves him his pistol, for “protection from coyotes.” As he walks away, he hears a single gunshot, and director Ford makes the right choice of not showing the self-killing act.

Robert nearly loses hope, but the ghosts of his two friends appear and refuse to let him give up. Upon arrival in New Jerusalem, the people are celebrating, singing Christmas Carols.  He collapses right after Sheriff Sweet catches up with him.

Due to his heroism and refusal to give up custody of his godson, Robert is viewed by the townspeople as a hero. At the end of his trial, he is sentenced to a minimum of one year and one day, but he promises to return, and the town, including Sheriff Sweet, bids him a rousing farewell.

At the time, critics and audiences marveled at the sensitivity with which Wayne’s macho man held the baby, and his commitment to protect him at all costs, because of his vow (“I gave her my word”) to his mother.

Obviously, the sight of men taking care of babies has continued to fascinate filmmakers, as manifest in the popularity of “Three Men and a Cradle,” the French comedy which was also remade as an American feature.

As noted, the movie is dedicated to Harry Carey, Sr.

Stay away from the TV version, “The Godchild.”


John Wayne as Robert Marmaduke Hightower

Harry Carey Jr. as William Kearney “The Abilene Kid”

Pedro Armendariz as Pedro “Pete” Fuerte

Mildred Natwick as Dying Mother

Ward Bond as Sheriff Buck Sweet

Mae Marsh as Mrs. Sweet

Jane Darwell as Miss Florie

Guy Kibbee as Judge

Hank Worden as Deputy Curley

Dorothy Ford as Ruby Latham

Ben Johnson as Posse Man

Charles Halton as Oliver Latham

Jack Pennick as Luke

Fred Libby as Deputy