Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Forty-Eight

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#48 — 3 Godfathers (John Ford, 1948)

A common and entirely apt complaint about modern Hollywood filmmaking is the evident pronounced disinterest in the pursuit of originality in favor of figuring out ways to cram familiar brands into the CGI-shaped contours of self-perpetuating (and, increasingly, interlocking) blockbuster franchises. It’s not unreasonable to wish for more invention and less anxious opportunism in the creative choices of modern crafters of cinema, and yet any misty-eyed pining for more golden eras necessarily require a certain amount of willful amnesia. Back in the time before older movies hung around like atrophied specters on late night television and any number of handy collectibles snatched up by susceptible cineastes, filmmakers were perfectly comfortable repeatedly revisiting material that had previously proven successful. 3 Godfathers, one of two films John Ford signed his name to in 1948, was on at least its fifth feature film incarnation, following efforts released in 1916, 1919, 1929, and 1936. Future proving there was no shame in cooking with the leftovers, the 1919 silent film, entitled Marked Men, was directed by Ford.

The story centers on a trio of Wild West criminals, cattle rustlers and bank robbers in the 1948 film, whose attempt at evading the law is complicated when their escape route through a dust storm in the desert leads them to a woman giving birth in a covered wagon. They provide her support in a delivery of enough strain that she effectively dies in childbirth, using her last breath to extract a pledge from the fugitives that they will look after her newborn son. The remainder of the film covers the travails of the men, lacking in water and pursued by a posse, as they protect their charge. In many ways, it is the most conventional of westerns, complete with a standoff between good guys and bad guys. The inversion of exactly who the heroes of the piece are stands as the first indicator that a slightly different version of the story is unfolding. And then there is the presence of the child, which gives the film both humor and poignancy above the standard level of the era’s westerns. It may not be some daring genre deconstruction (that sort of thing would start arrived in earnest a couple decades later), but it does offer something deliberately different within a familiar form. 3 Godfathers hints as the breadth of tales that can be presented out on the frontier.

Ford brings his usual mastery to the mechanics of the narrative, presenting the story with clarity and moments of insight that sneak up rather than announce themselves. For a filmmaker who prospered though directness, Ford had a way with casual nuance, the threads of tender psychology that could be woven in to a whole piece to give it a more appealing texture. In that endeavor, he had the ideal acting collaborator in Wayne — there’s a reason their careers interlocked — who could find surprising layers within his standard onscreen persona. His performance here (alongside Pedro Armendáriz and Harry Carey, Jr.) as one of the three robbers is awash in movie star charisma, which lends authority to the character’s shifts in motivation, from conniving criminality to selfless protectiveness. There is added honesty to the transformation because Wayne brings such leveled assurance to every part of his self. He strides across the Technicolor vistas of Death Valley as if no one belongs there more than him, no matter what mission he’s committed himself to at the moment. Ford knew precisely how to capture that part of Wayne’s constant myth-building. Ford didn’t have Wayne for his first pass at the story told in 3 Godfathers. In a way, it’s no wonder he returned to it once he had the missing piece in the former Marion Morrison. The film seem less like recycling and more like the final draft.


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