3 Godfathers (1948)

Dir. John Ford. Starring John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, Harry Carey, Jr.

It may be my contrarian inclinations, it may be my childlessness, it may be that I just prefer critters, but I know that whenever someone has a baby on a sitcom it bores me. It is one of two common topics in fiction (the other being drug/alcohol abuse) which I simply cannot make myself interested in; hilariously, I think Trainspotting is a great movie and a fascinating watch. For that reason, I resisted this Ford movie longer than I have resisted literally any Ford movie. I sought out stuff like Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn and Steamboat Round the Bend. But this one, despite seeing it frequently at the library and then seeing it frequently on TCM, I couldn’t pull the trigger on. Naturally, I’ve now seen it twice and think it’s one Ford’s best movies from his jam-packed 1940s. If it were really about a baby, it’s possible I still may not have been able to get into it. But it’s not really about a baby, or at least its best moments don’t have to do with little Robert William Pedro. The film is about something which is not really fashionable in westerns anymore; it’s about the sanctity of life, and it just happens to have a baby to bring out the idea. In a No Country for Old Men or a Bone Tomahawk, life is only precious, maybe, after it’s been turned to dust. Its preciousness is from regret that we did not live more wisely, or from how quickly and horribly it’s extinguished. In 3 Godfathers, the body count is dropped and the blood is drained away. This is not about the spectacle of extinguishing life, although the two people who die in this movie die in drawn-out, stomach-turning ways. In the end, it’s about who’s still alive and why that’s desirable, about the conundrum of destroying human life in order to preserve human life, and why that sacrifice makes sense.

There’s this little throwaway line of dialogue in the second scene after the credits. The three future godfathers, at present merely three rustlers and will-be bank robbers, are cluelessly taking coffee at the marshal’s home. The marshal, Sweet (Ward Bond), and his wife (Mae Marsh) are chatting vaguely about a pair of relatives who are supposed to be coming into town, Mrs. Sweet’s niece and her husband. Sweet is not impressed with Mrs. Sweet’s husband. I don’t mean to make this sound all that special, because literally every movie does something like this, but the execution of it is top-notch. The dialogue signifies in the moment the domestic life of a law enforcement officer living down a cute name. Later on, it is the foundation for an incredibly gorgeous sequence. The three bank robbers escape the town of Welcome, but a skillful shot from Sweet punctures their waterbags, and a desert chess game between Sweet and the desperadoes’ leader, Bob (Wayne) is fought over water. Sweet, using locomotives, cuts them off from one source. The men move to another, and then finally reach a watering hole where they expect to be able to drink their fill and outfox Sweet once and for all. It turns out that not only is the hole empty, but it’s ruined. Someone, Bob reports, has used dynamite, and so cracked the foundation of it that it will never give water again. People will die because of it, he notes; when Sweet comes across it later in the movie, he notes the same thing but comes to a different conclusion about who must have done it. It’s ironic; the man who did it is the same one who Sweet had expressed his disfavor towards while he was drinking coffee and tending flowers behind his picket fence.

His wife is there, alone. The man who drove her to this ruin is gone. She is unwell, and more than that hours away from giving birth to her first child. (The chase for water, the struggle of women in this even rougher time without the men who are supposed to provide for them, the profound desperation: this is an outstanding sister film to Meek’s Cutoff, which, though set decades earlier and focused very differently, bears obvious surface and welling thematic connections to 3 Godfathers. It’s not so hard to imagine Zoe Kazan in that wagon instead of Mildred Natwick, nor is it such a stretch to think Natwick’s unseen husband might look an awful lot like Paul Dano in Meek’s Cutoff.) Bob is the one who found here, but it’s Pete (Armendariz) who is given the responsibility of helping her with the birth; he is the only one of the three who has had a wife and children. Ford loves those outside to inside shots, and he does just that in the scene where Pete meets the woman. We see him from her perspective (or maybe from the baby’s), coming into view through the flaps in the canvas. Seeing this woman, knowing that she has to be cared for, knowing that there is a baby coming, changes the men. Before, there is some discord, concern for Bill’s (Carey, Jr.) wounded shoulder, anger at how little water they have. There is a job to do now, though, and during the labor Bob and Bill squeeze the water from cacti into their canteens, knowing it will be required by someone in even greater need than themselves.

The birth is not given a lot of time. It’s the point afterwards, where the woman holds the newborn and speaks to the men who have given the baby a chance to survive, which is lingered on, and it is a sobering, beautiful point. Inflected with fatigue and the foreknowledge of her own death, she laments that she will not be able to tuck this child in or hold him after these last minutes. She insists that the men act as the child’s godfathers, asking for their names. The men—Bob, Bill, and Pete to one another—give her the names that were spoken at their baptisms. Robert, William (who had earlier in the movie bragged that he was called “the Abilene Kid”), and Pedro. It’s the name the child is given; she dies, relying on the kindness of strangers. I think it would be very easy for this scene to signify tremendous despair. It is no small thing to raise a girl to womanhood only to marry her off to a man who is a fool and a coward, and then to force her to spend the last hours of her life in pain only to hand over her newborn to three rough men on the run from the law. Yet there is trust in her voice, and forbearance in her face. Natwick is remarkable in this one sequence, and the movie pivots entirely on her. As moving as it is to watch these three men who have casually turned to violence make themselves gentlemen for her, it is much more moving to watch this woman’s faith in action. She does not seem worried that these men will do anything but care for the child, even if they are not knowledgeable about how it’s done or, given her ‘druthers, the kind of foster family she might have chosen. She asks, and the ask is a firm demand, and then she can die.

From that point on, the men have made a choice, although it’s not a choice that any of them talk about while they’re figuring out how to care for little Robert (or, as it inevitably goes…”Robert,” “Robert William,” “Robert William Pedro!”). If the movie ended differently, it’s possible to imagine the men romping through the desert as quickly as possible and then skulking around some town where they could leave the baby on the doorstep. But the movie ends with Robert refusing to give up his guardianship of the child to the Sweets, even if it means that he gets the book thrown at him for a number of crimes. I made a promise to that woman, he tells the judge, and I can’t break it. They all feel that way, and what that means is that all of them have, at the very least, volunteered themselves to hard time. It’s clear that Bill is not going to make it back to civilization, perhaps would not have made it back to civilization even without having to consider the woman and the baby. In his final hours, he has to be forced to drink water which, in his mind, he is stealing from the baby. Not long after, Pete, also carrying the baby, stumbles and collapses. The hard fall breaks his leg, and he waits until Bob and little Robert are out of sight before he euthanizes himself, a great BANG reverberating around the rocks that signifies two of three are dead. Bob himself barely makes it back to civilization, and the math on how he does it is a little tough to parse. He tosses a Bible away as he walks through a rocky pass, but then the donkey and her own baby appear to him just as they appeared in the Bible; he sees his two friends, ghostly and cheerful, walking on and encouraging him to find the end of the road, a glass of cold beer, rest. In the end, Bob makes it back with little Robert, but, as we knew he would have to, he winds up sacrificing his freedom to do it. In the end we understand it will be a brief stay in the clink—his farewell gets the whole town to come out and cheer and sing for him as he’s transported to jail, which may not be a unique moment in a movie but it’s pretty close—yet that’s not the reason Bob seems pretty chipper about the whole thing. He’s saved a life that could not save itself, and he’ll return to it after a year and a day.

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