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Three Godfathers: John Ford’s (Deeply Christian) Christmas Western

December 22nd, 2023 | 10 min read

By Adam Carrington

When considering classic Christmas filmmakers, we tend to name Frank Capra for his It’s a Wonderful Life. We don’t think of John Ford, best known for his Western masterpieces such as Stagecoach and The Searchers. However, Ford did make a Christmas Western. MGM released Three Godfathers in December of 1948—75 years ago. Though lesser known among Ford’s pictures, it is worth the watching, providing a deep Christmas meditation on sin, condemnation, and redemption.

The film is based off the 1913 short novel of the same name by Peter B. Kyne. Ford had brought the story to the big screen before, in the now lost 1916 silent adaptation, Marked Men (there had been three additional adaptations by other filmmakers up to that point as well). The story focuses on three bank robbers, Robert Hightower (played by John Wayne), Pedro “Pete” (played by Pedro Armendariz), and William “The Abilene Kid” (played by Harry Carey, Jr.). The men successfully hold up the bank in the town of Welcome, Arizona, though the Abilene Kid gets wounded. Chased by the town’s marshal (played by Ford regular Ward Bond), the men struggle to both evade their pursuers and to find water.

Eventually, the desperate robbers come upon a watering hole, called Terrapin Tanks, only to find it has been accidentally destroyed by a “tenderfoot” traveling with his wife by wagon. The man is gone and presumably dead. The wife is still in the wagon and in labor with her first child. Dying after giving birth to a boy, the mother then makes the three thieves the child’s godfathers. She even names the baby after the men: Robert William Pedro Hightower. This refocuses the men’s mission from escaping justice to getting baby Robert to safety.

Throughout, the film gives obvious clues that it is self-consciously a Christmas movie. Several characters note that Christmas comes soon. The Abilene Kid declares that little Robert is like the baby Jesus and themselves like the Three Wisemen. The climatic scenes take place on Christmas Eve into Christmas morning. The piano-man at the bar in one of these later scenes even plays “Silent Night.”

In addition Three Godfathers contains deeper Christmas themes. For Christians, Christmas has a past and a future. Its past is humanity’s Fall into evil or sin with accompanying condemnation, temporal and eternal. Its future is redemption—the purpose for which the first Christmas happened. Three Godfathers contains this same arc—sin, condemnation, salvation.

First, we see a kind of Fall into sin. The men enter the peaceful town of Welcome. It is a kind of Eden in the desert. The men arrive and destroy that innocence in robbing the bank. In so doing, they also further corrupt themselves. At the play’s beginning, Bob encourages the Abilene Kid not to participate in the robbery. William already is wanted for some crime—the Sheriff’s office has his wanted poster. Still, one senses an innocence in the Kid that Bob sees as well and worries about debasing. The Kid’s full participation in the robbery seems to continue a Fall from goodness.  

Second, we witness condemnation, one that takes several forms. The Abilene Kid gets shot during the getaway following the bank robbery, a judgment for breaking the commandment not to steal. When the robbers’ horses are lost during a sandstorm, Pedro swears that he tied them down but that the devil came and let them go (but the film posits it could be Divine punishment). Finally, Sheriff Buck Sweet (played by Ford regular Ward Bond) chases the thieves with cleverness and dogged determination. He represents the law in more than the political sense. The three robbers violated God’s moral law as well and stand under His, and its, condemnation. Sweet and his deputies pursue the men as agents of divine judgment, sent to punish the three thieves for their sins.

Here, the theme of water plays prominently in the plot. Most of the film takes place in the desert. The men spend much of the film suffering from lack of water and in a desperate search for a ready supply. The spiritual parallels are hard to miss. The world is a spiritual desert. As these men die from lack of physical water, so they, and we, spiritually die when lacking spiritual water. Scripture makes great use of the image of God’s Word as lifegiving water for perishing souls (Isaiah 55:10-11; John 4:14; 7:38). So do these men, even more than physical water, need deep wells of soul-water.

Third, the film shows redemption. The three men stagger to the watering hole where they meet the mother and her child, thinking they have finally found a kind of salvation: the physical water. They are foiled again in this effort. But in the child, they unknowingly find the salvation their souls need.

Early on in caring for the child, these men’s salvation includes another kind of condemnation: repentance. The Abilene Kid sings the baby to sleep with a lullaby. The particular song sung, “The Streets of Laredo,” reveals much. The words which open the song describe a dying cowboy, shot as the Kid was. He then sings a later verse, where the dying cowboy asks to be buried, concluding with the words, “For I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.” This lullaby operates as the Kid’s, and the gang’s, confession. The initial step toward redemption is realizing you need redeemed.

These robbers’ salvation next involves acknowledgement of a personal, providential God. The Abilene Kid and Pedro see this almost immediately. Pedro says the men should ask “El Senor” what to do. The Kid declares that some higher power is directing these events, including finding the woman and child. In these men’s common acknowledgment, the film here contains ecumenical undertones. The Abilene Kid clearly grew up in some form of low-church Protestantism. We see it in his particular reverence for Scripture and in the folksy Protestant hymns he sings. Pedro is Roman Catholic, which we can assume both from his Mexican roots and actions like crossing himself. Bob, though, reacts with derision and mockery to religious explanations. Earlier, he says something could go on happening “from now till I get religion” meaning seemingly forever. He is the farthest from the Kingdom.

Next, redemption requires seeking out and submitting to the Divine will. But where might one come to know that will? Pedro first suggests looking to the Bible they find among the items the mother left for young Robert. Bob, still the skeptic, dismissively slaps the Bible out of Pedro’s hand. Pedro reprimands Bob for doing so because, he says, it is “bad luck.” Though reverent, that explanation risks reducing Scripture to something like a rabbit’s foot and providence to impersonal fortune.

It is the Kid who sees most clearly. He picks up the knocked down Bible and looks at the passage to which it lay opened. The text is Luke 2:22: “And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord.”

He believes the Bible tells them to go to the town of New Jerusalem, some 60 miles away. The Kid convinces the others to go that route. Interestingly, the Scriptural text is not about the actual birth of Jesus. Instead, it concerns Christ’s circumcision eight days later. This day remains within traditional Christmastide (the twelve days of Christmas starting, not ending, on Christmas Day). But the text carries more meaning for the film than the overlapping names of Jerusalem. Christ was born in Bethlehem. That is the place where Redemption begins. Jesus dies and is raised just outside Jerusalem. That is the location where redemption is finally accomplished. In walking from the Bethlehem of Terrapin Tanks to New Jerusalem, these men, led by the child, are walking their own salvation road.

In this journey, the Kid also sees a new story of the Magi. He equates the Godfathers with the Wisemen who traveled from the East, following a star that led them to the newborn Jesus. They, too, are three in number. They, too, follow a star toward their destination. Yet these men have significant differences from the first Wisemen. The original Magi sought salvation in finding the child. These three Godfathers find salvation in the course of securing the child’s safety. The Magi were great men of repute, showing the rulers of this world submitting to God’s Kingship (Psalm 2). These men are thieves, criminals, the dregs of the earth.  This change in characters shows a different but no less important truth. It is not to the high and mighty that the newborn Savior first is revealed. It is to the shepherds, hardly persons elevated socially or economically. And the baby would grow up to hang out with “sinners” before dying between two thieves. Jesus said, “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.  I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

As they trek across the desert, their situation becomes dire. The Kid eventually succumbs from his wound and dehydration. Dying on the desert ground, he begs Pedro to read out loud from the Bible the 137th Psalm. Pedro reads the first five verses with the Kid interjecting to say one of the lines, showing he knows the text by heart. The Kid then begins to say the Lord’s Prayer but then switches to the children’s bedtime petition: “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the LORD my soul to keep/If I should die before I wake/I pray the LORD my soul to take.” After praying for his family, he finally says, “Make me a good boy. Amen.” His deathbed words are packed with redemptive meaning. The childlike prayer asks God to keep and take his soul. Given his sins, it is a plea for God’s mercy to keep him in life and to take him in death. Moreover, he asks to be made a “good boy.” This point seems particularly strange, for he is an adult and moments from death. Yet Jesus said, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Faith like a child is the faith which God demands. Becoming a boy is not a regression to the infantile but a progression toward salvation. And the Kid can’t supply his own goodness, especially not now. God must “make” him good by grace. In the child, we see the Biblical metaphor, for it is by the goodness of Another that we are declared righteous.

The next to perish is Pedro. Holding baby Robert, he, too, collapses, falling and rolling down a small decline. Robert is fine but Pedro, grimacing, announces his leg is broken. He refuses any plan of Bob’s to try and bring him along as he will slow them down. New Jerusalem is just over the mountain, he declares. Bob and little Robert could make it if they go on alone. Pedro asks Bob to leave Bob’s pistol because, he says, of the coyotes. Unlike in the novel, where they play a prominent and menacing role, in the film we do not see any coyotes threatening the men. Bob gives him the gun and walks away. In Spanish, Pedro, facing the sky, prays, “Our Father...who art in heaven...make some space...in your Holy Land...for this poor Pedro.”

As the camera watches Bob walking away with little Robert, a single shot rings out across the desert. Pedro’s death is more complicated as part of the redemption story, to put it mildly. Ford seems to present Pedro’s death more as an act of self-sacrifice than one of self-slaughter. Still, Ford does not leave Pedro’s suicide entirely unaddressed. Pedro’s petition comes in connection not only to his past sins but his imminent, last one. He, like William, throws himself on the mercy of God. He asks for God to graciously make space for him, knowing he never could demand that place as a matter of right. From the movie’s perspective, that’s enough.

Before they part, Pedro announces that he remembered what day it is: “Feliz Navidad,” he says, for tomorrow is Christmas Day. Only Bob now remains to carry baby Robert to Jerusalem. He stops in a cave, trying to feed little Robert what might be the last of the canned milk and water. While discarding excess baggage, he tosses the Bible away. The wind blows its pages in a flurry until Bob, crawling over to it, stops the book open. He reads the first passage he sees on the page, parts of Matthew 21:1-2: "... unto Jerusalem....a donkey tied, and a colt with her: Loose them, and bring them unto me." Chronologically, this passage of Scripture is far from the events of Christmas. Instead, it discusses how Jesus’ disciples obtain the donkey on which Christ makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. That moment sets off the string of events that includes the Last Supper, Jesus’ crucifixion, and His resurrection. Again, this Christmas film points toward Good Friday and Easter.

Still with the mind of a sinner, specifically a thief, Bob laughs at the passage, reading it as involving a form of stealing for which, in Arizona, “they’d string you.” Bob staggers on, before collapsing in exhaustion and despair, speaking as if he can’t go on. But in his delirious state, he hears the voices of The Kid and Pedro, and even sees what seem like their ghosts, urging him to continue. Bob arises and stumbles on. Then he experiences a miracle: a donkey and a colt appear in the distance, like the passage he had just read. Bob says nothing. But, as he walks over to the donkey and the colt, he makes a momentary glance to heaven. He is no longer far from the Kingdom but a part of it. He has “got religion.” Bob places baby Robert on the Donkey and, leaning on the same, staggers the rest of the way into New Jerusalem.

At the town, the bar in which Bob take the baby serves as this Christmas story’s stable. Rather than humble in its lack of elegance, this stable is humble in its lack of morality—just the place where the need for redemption is most clearly seen. There Sheriff Sweet confronts Bob, hoping to kill him for his deeds, not capture him. Bob collapses. Sweet then learns that the baby Bob saved was the son of Sweet’s niece-in-law.

Bob is convicted and offered the deal of getting a suspended sentence if he will give up custody of the child to Sheriff Sweet and his wife. Bob refuses and is given the minimum sentence of a year plus a day. He must pay the temporal consequences of his wrongs. But he, the skeptic and religious mocker, has been redeemed in soul.

Thus concludes the soul-arc portrayed in Ford’s picture. Earlier in the film, as the men bury little Robert’s mother, William sings a hymn: “Shall We Gather at the River?” Its chorus affirms,

Yes, we'll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

That gathering is the ultimate fulfillment the Christmas story as told by Three Godfathers. For Christmas is about living water that forever questions mankind’s spiritual thirst. It is about condemned sinners who, by grace, are redeemed into saints. And it is about a little child who accomplishes all this to bring the saints to the throne, His throne. Merry Christmas.