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Film / 3 Godfathers

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3 Godfathers is a 1948 Western film directed by John Ford and featuring Ford's favorite leading man, John Wayne. It is the best-known of several screen adaptations of Peter B. Kyne's 1913 novella The Three Godfathers.

Wayne is Robert Hightower, the most genial, affable bank robber you'll ever meet. He and his partners, the similarly affable Pedro Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendáriz) and the much younger William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr.), ride into the Arizona Territory town of Welcome with the intent of robbing the bank. They pull off the robbery successfully, but find themselves pursued by Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), who wings William in the shoulder as the desperadoes flee town.

The three bank robbers set off into the desert. They are unpleasantly surprised to find that Sweet shot a hole in their water flask as they were riding away. They are even more unpleasantly surprised when they make it to a water tower built for travelers in the desert, only to find that Sweet has cleverly stationed men there to guard it. Robert, Pedro, and William soon grow desperate as they stagger through the desert. They find another watering hole, only to find that it is also dry—and that there's a woman there in a pioneer wagon. A woman who is nine months pregnant and about to give birth. A woman who just happens to be Sheriff Sweet's niece.

Oh, and it's Christmas Eve.

Shares its source material with Tokyo Godfathers, which places the story in then-modern Tokyo. The main premise also served as an inspiration for movies such as Three Men and a Baby and the first Ice Age film.


  • Away in a Manger: Eventually it becomes clear that the film is actually a sort of Setting Update of the Nativity story. William likens the three of them to the Three Wise Men. It's Christmastime, and they're protecting a newborn baby. They wind up following a star. The star finally leads Robert and the baby to safety, in a town called New Jerusalem.
  • Cold Equation: When Pedro breaks his leg on the salt flat, a frantic Robert suggests either fixing him a splint or fixing up a travois and dragging him. Pedro calmly points out that either way, they'll be too slow and all three of them will die of dehydration. So Robert has to leave Pedro behind.
  • Crosscast Role: A viewer paying close attention to the greasing scene will notice that the baby is a girl.
  • Deadly Dust Storm: The Santa Ana wins whip up a sandstorm so bad that the three men have to take cover under some canvas until it passes. And it results in a terrible setback when they get out from under their canvas and discover their horses are gone, the picket pin having been uprooted by the wind.
  • Death by Childbirth: The woman dies right after giving birth, leaving three rough-and-tumble bandits to take care of a newborn baby.
  • Dies Wide Open: The mother, who presumably bled out.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: The whole courtroom roars with laughter when the audience hears "Robert Marmaduke Hightower."
  • Foreshadowing: Mr. and Mrs. Sweet asking if Robert saw their niece.
  • Fruit Cart: Sort of. As the three godfathers are racing out of town, one collides with a old lady's card, knocking over the barrel of fruit therein.
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Instead the mother says "Oh, it's getting dark" right before she dies.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: After realizing that he has to stay behind on the salt flat or all three of them will die of dehydration, Pedro asks Robert to leave behind a pistol, supposedly as protection against the coyotes. As Robert is walking away, he hears a gunshot behind him.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The train that takes Robert away to jail, but with the knowledge that he'll be back for his godson in a year.
  • The Plot Reaper: The mother needs to die so the three godfathers can take charge of the infant.
  • Rule of Three: We couldn't have four wise men, uh, godfathers. And five is right out.
  • Running Gag: The mother names her baby Robert William Pedro for his three godfathers. There's a running gag afterwards in which Robert keeps calling the baby "Robert", William says "Robert William", and Pedro says "Robert William Pedro."
  • Secret Test of Character: The judge offers to suspend Robert's 20-year sentence if he signs over custody of the baby. Robert refuses. The judge says that's what he wanted to hear, and sentences Robert to a year and a day.
  • Star of Bethlehem: There is an actual star, showing the three godfathers the way to safety in the town of New Jerusalem.
  • Thirsty Desert: The three godfathers' ordeal starts bad when their water flask is shot through, gets worse when their first watering hole is staked out by Sweet's men, and gets a lot worse when their second watering hole turns out to have been accidentally destroyed. Then they have to cross a wide salt flat to get to New Jerusalem. (Unlike most Ford films, which were shot in Monument Valley, he filmed this one in Death Valley.)
  • Three-Month-Old Newborn: The baby is supposedly a newborn and summaries refer to him as such. However, the baby actor is clearly several months old. Gets pushed into Artistic License – Biology when the characters mention that he's already teething.
  • The Three Wise Men: Just three cowboys, following a star across the desert on Christmas, to a place called New Jerusalem.
  • The Trope Kid: Sheriff Sweet recognizes young William as a wanted man, "The Abilene Kid".
  • Two-Act Structure: The plot turns into something very different when the bank robbers, fleeing across the desert with a posse in pursuit, stumble across a woman marooned in a wagon, about to give birth. The second part has them taking care of the newborn baby.
  • "Wanted!" Poster: The sheriff has one of William.
  • Worthy Opponent: "The more I think of that big fella in the Texas hat, the more I admire him", says Sheriff Sweet, while trying to figure out which way Robert and his gang will head. Sheriff Sweet changes his mind later, getting severely pissed when he thinks Robert and company dynamited the water hole. (It was actually the pregnant woman's husband, who was too lazy to dig for water and wound up destroying the water hole.)