3 Godfathers (1948 film)

3 Godfathers is a 1948 American Western film directed by John Ford and filmed (although not set) primarily in Death Valley, California. The screenplay, written by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings, is based on the 1913 novelette The Three Godfathers by Peter B. Kyne. The story is something of a retelling of the story of the Three Wise Men in an American Western context.[2]

3 Godfathers
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Produced byMerian C. Cooper
Screenplay byLaurence Stallings
Frank S. Nugent
Robert Nathan
Based onThe Three Godfathers
1913 novelette
by Peter B. Kyne
StarringJohn Wayne
Harry Carey Jr.
Pedro Armendáriz
Music byRichard Hageman
CinematographyWinton Hoch
Edited byJack Murray
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • December 1, 1948 (1948-12-01)
Running time
106 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2,841,000[1]

Ford had already adapted the novelette once before in Marked Men (1919)—a silent film thought to be lost today. He decided to remake the story in Technicolor and dedicate the film to the memory of long-time friend Harry Carey, who starred in the previous movie. Carey's son, Harry Carey, Jr., plays one of the title roles in this 1948 film.


Three rustlers—Robert “Bob” Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro "Pete" Rocafuerte (Pedro Armendáriz), and William “The Abilene Kid” Kearney (Harry Carey, Jr.)—ride into Welcome, Arizona. They have a friendly conversation with Perley “Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond), and his wife (Mae Marsh) who asks if they have seen her niece and her husband on the trail. Buck puts on his vest, revealing a badge. “I’ll be seeing you boys, probably, ” he says.

They rob the bank but the loot is lost when The Kid is shot and his horse falls. They flee into the desert on two horses, pursued by Buck and men in a buckboard. Buck shoots a hole in their water bag and then turns back to the depot. In spite of that loss, they drink freely when they come within sight of the railroad’s water tank, only to see Buck’s posse arrive by train and station a guard.

Doubling back to Terrapin Tanks, the robbers lose their horses in a sandstorm. Desperate for water, they find the granite sump dynamited by a tenderfoot (dooming countless others). He disappeared chasing his horses. In a covered wagon nearby lies the man's wife (Mildred Natwick), who is in labor. While Pete helps with the delivery, the other two squeeze water drop by drop from barrel cactus. Many hours later, she has a boy, whom she names Robert William Pedro after her benefactors. Before dying, she exacts a promise from them to save him and be his godfathers.

Moved, the three desperadoes keep their vow. They find a chest filled with baby things, a Bible, condensed milk, and an advice book. That night, Pedro offers Bob the Bible for guidance and he slaps it aside. The Kid, certain that a higher power guided them there, compares the baby to the infant Jesus in the manger. He reads where the Bible fell open, at Luke 2:22 : “...they lifted up the child and brought him to Jerusalem...” So they head for the town of New Jerusalem, across the desert and over a mountain. The Kid insists on carrying the baby—proclaiming that there were three wise men and he is one of them. When they reach the salt flat, he knocks off a boot heel to make walking easier, revealing why he refuses water: He doesn’t plan on getting farther.

At Terrapin Tanks, Buck’s posse blames the robbers for dynamiting the water hole. Buck recognizes the woman’s wedding dress: Now he wants them dead.

The Kid dies, praying “Now I Lay Me..”, while Bob shades him with his hat. Then Pete falls, breaking his leg. He asks Bob to leave him his pistol, "for coyotes." It is Christmas Eve, and he wishes Bob Feliz Navidad; As Bob walks toward the mountain, he hears a single gunshot.

Staggering through a deep passage, Bob falls; the wind riffles the pages of the Bible and he stops it—at Matthew 21:2. He reads of “a donkey tied and a colt with her.” In his delirium, the ghosts of his two friends follow and refuse to let him give up. Then the animals appear. Leaning on the donkey, he finally reaches New Jerusalem and a cantina where customers are singing The Holy City. Seeing the baby, the pianist plays Silent Night; Bob collapses just as Buck says, “Draw.”

In Welcome, Bob waits for the jury’s verdict. He is a hero, and they find him guilty, but under “ exterminatin’ “ circumstances. Bob will give temporary custody to the Sweets, now his friends, but when the judge (Guy Kibbee) asks him to give up custody permanently in exchange for a suspended sentence, he refuses to break his promise to a dying woman. The judge is pleased, and gives him a year and a day.

As he leaves for prison, the town gives Bob a rousing farewell. While he was in jail, Miss Ruby Latham (Dorothy Ford), the bank owner’s daughter, sent him a cake with a hacksaw in it. Now she asks if she may write him. “I’d be proud for you to take your pen in hand, Miss Latham,” he calls from the departing train.


Points of interest

This film was dedicated to John Ford's friend and early star, Harry Carey, who died in 1947. At the beginning, stuntman Cliff Lyons is shown silhouetted against a sunset, riding Carey’s favorite horse, Sonny, over the words: “To the Memory of Harry Carey, bright star of the Western sky... “[3]

The opening credits say “Introducing Harry Carey, Jr.” but this was not his first appearance on screen. He had been in at least five pictures before this one. Young Carey had had a close relationship with Ford until this picture, but found himself the target of verbal and physical abuse that shocked him. John Wayne explained that Ford did this to everyone as s way of getting the performances he wanted. The acerbic director showed some real sensitivity when he made young Carey go home early one day. The tribute segment described above was going to be filmed, and Ford wanted to spare him. [3]

The senior Carey starred in the first film version, The Three Godfathers (1916) playing Bob Sangster, a former horsethief who is trying to go straight. In the remake Marked Men (1919), directed by John Ford, he played Harry, a prison escapee who also survives the ordeal, finding love on the way.[4]

Hell’s Heroes (1930), directed by William Wyler, stars Charles Bickford as Bob Sangster, a true desperado, who originally plans to rape the woman in the wagon, and in the end saves the baby by drinking from a poisoned waterhole, knowing it will give him enough time to get to safety.

Three Godfathers (1936), stars Chester Morris as Bob, a ruthless killer (we would call him a sociopath), with Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan as members of the gang. He also uses the poisoned well.

In the 1948 version no one is killed during the robbery, and the loot is small. It is lost before they leave town and is never mentioned again. In the 1930 and 1936 versions, which are grimmer, the bad guys are very bad, people are killed during the robbery, and saddlebags full of stolen gold play a crucial role. Film Critic Leonard Maltin prefers “Hell’s Heroes“ as the “most satisfying, least sentimental”[5] of all the films. He praised the “underrated” 1936 version as “beautifully shot and warmly acted”[6]

Maltin describes the 1948 film as “sturdy, sentimental, sometimes beautiful,” but feels that the last scene “didn’t ring true.”[7]

Note: The paragraph below has no context, citation or source. It may be referring to the DVD released in 2007, which includes a soundtrack dubbed in French.[8] Pedro Armendariz died in 1963, so it is impossible for him to have participated in that recording. If it is referring to a copy of the film that was released in France in 1950, then that should be made clear.

It is believed that Pedro Armendariz dubbed his own voice into French for the film considering that he spoke French well enough to appear in the film Lucrèce Borgia (1953) as the leading man and in at least one other French film. However, none of the French voice actors are credited.


The film has maintained its positive reception. It holds an 82% "Fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 11 critics.

According to MGM records, the film earned $2,078,000 in the US and Canada and $763,000 overseas, resulting in a profit of $450,000.[1][9]

See also


  1. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. Higham, Charles; Greenberg, Joel (1968). Hollywood in the Forties. London: A. Zwemmer Limited. p. 112.
  3. "Three Godfathers (1948)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-12-12.
  4. "Marked Men (1919) - Full Synopsis - TCM.com". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-12-12.
  5. "Hell's Heroes (1930) - Overview - TCM.com". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-12-12.
  6. "Three Godfathers (1936) - Overview - TCM.com". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-12-12.
  7. "3 Godfathers (1949) - Overview - TCM.com". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-12-12.
  8. "3 Godfathers Subtitled, Dubbed, Repackaged, Special Packaging on TCM Shop". TCM Shop. Retrieved 2019-12-12.
  9. "Top Grossers of 1949". Variety. 4 January 1950. p. 59.
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