Wednesday, December 21, 2011

3 Godfathers (1948)


     Merry Christmas, ladies and gentlemen! I’ve decided this week to honor the holidays by sharing with you one of my favorite Christmas movies: “3 Godfathers”!

     Now, some of you are probably thinking, What the heck is this movie? I’ve heard of “The Godfather”, but not “3 Godfathers”. Well, a year ago around this time, I hadn’t heard of it either. But last Christmas, I came across a box set of movies starring John Wayne and directed by—you guessed it—John Ford, whose films I’ve referred to several times on “Reel Christianity”. Ford, a Catholic, is best known for directing Westerns with Wayne, including “The Searchers”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and today’s film, “3 Godfathers”. And in my opinion, it qualifies as a Christmas movie, because—get this—it’s a “Western retelling of the Biblical Three Wise Men tale”. Literally, it says that on the back cover of the DVD. So immediately, I wanted to see this movie. And it turned out to be one of my favorite John Wayne/John Ford movies ever.

     Wayne leads once again as Robert, one of three bank robbers. He is joined by young William (Harry Carey, Jr., who would go on to join Wayne and Ford in “The Searchers”) and Hispanic Pedro (Pedro Armendariz). After riding for a while (perhaps on the run), they come across the small, friendly town of Welcome, Arizona, where Sheriff Buck Sweet (played by Ford film regular Ward Bond) immediately has his suspicions about the three men. And sure enough, he’s right, for the three men quickly rob the town bank and get away—but not before William is shot by his shoulder and Sweet shoots the gang’s bag of water. So as Sweet gets a posse together to go after the robbers, Robert, William, and Pedro are forced to find water and shelter, while also caring for William’s bullet wound.

     Eventually, the three robbers lose their horses in a sandstorm, William’s injured arm leaves him barely able to do much, and they find themselves in an abandoned town with a recently destroyed water tower. But they come across something very mysterious: a covered wagon with a woman alone inside who is in the process of delivering a baby. Pedro helps her deliver, and she gives birth to a son, whom she, knowing she is about to die, names Robert William Pedro after her saviors and entrusts to them as their godson. She eventually passes away, and the three men bury her body and start looking after little Robert William Pedro.

     However, none of the men have a clue how to raise a newborn. And this leads to some antics that make “3 Godfathers” one of the funniest Westerns I’ve ever seen. Inside a chest in the wagon that contains the baby’s clothes and other supplies is a booklet on how to take care of a baby. It says that when the baby is too young to bathe, rub grease on him. So Pedro, not knowing any better, takes some tire grease from under the wagon, and Robert begins rubbing him down. When figuring out how to feed him, Williams reads in the booklet that, “The best and surest method [for feeding] is the one which nature has provided.” Knowing what he means, Robert responds: “Well, that’s out.”

     And eventually, stress gets to the three men, as they try to figure out what to do. Robert and Pedro get into an argument about heading back to town, and Pedro humbly suggests that a Bible that was also found in the chest may provide them with an answer. In anger, Robert knocks the Bible out of Pedro’s hands, and it lands on the ground, the pages opening to Luke 2:22. William picks it up and tells the other two:

WILLIAM: It says right here where we’re to go, just like it’s told everything about all this! You fellas don’t understand; you think this was all just chance? Just accidental-like, us coming here this way? Finding the mother… helping her… the infant in the manger… the star, so bright last night… I ain’t talking outta no fever sweat, Bob, honest I ain’t. You think we had anything to do with what’s happened? No, sir, we didn’t—no more than you had anything to do with throwing the book. …It says Jerusalem right here in the book.

PEDRO: Look, Bob, maybe our Lord doesn’t care very much what happens to a simple cattle thief, but if I was in a gambling house, I would play the kid’s number.

     And the three of them decide to sacrifice their health and their safety in order to get their godson to the nearby town of New Jerusalem. And this scene is what really impacted me the most when I first saw “3 Godfathers”. This isn’t just a retelling of the Three Wise Men—it’s a story about sacrifice and keeping an oath, even when the circumstances are tough.

     This sacrifice is a small example of what Jesus commands of us in Luke 9:23: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Robert, William, and Pedro are beginning a journey that was beyond just escaping the law and getting themselves water—they are keeping a promise to a woman to take care of her baby, a promise that hits home to the faith they believe in. And Robert himself eventually carries his cross in his own way: when he finds himself at the end of the journey, carrying Robert William Pedro alone, after William and Pedro have eventually died on the way.

     As he carries his godson, Robert’s strength—and his faith—begin to fade. At one point, Robert sits down to regain his strength, and that Bible happens to turn to Matthew 21, where Jesus asks his disciples to find the donkey for him to ride on what we now know as Palm Sunday. But Robert ignores the sign and moves on, but it isn’t long before he falls again. And that’s when he hears voices in his head:

PEDRO: So, you break your promise to a dying woman?

ROBERT: I… I can’t go any further.

WILLIAM: Of course you can, Bob! What does the Book say? Follow the Book!

     As Robert finally gets up and starts walking, the images of William and Pedro appear walking behind him, joining him again in his journey. And as he becomes stronger, he sees a figure in the distance: a donkey, complete with bags and a blanket on his saddle. And when Robert eventually gets to New Jerusalem with Robert William Pedro safe, into a saloon where the pianist begins playing “Silent Night” in honor of that Christmas Eve, Robert doesn’t even care that Buck Sweet walks in and arrests him, sentencing him to what ends up being a year in prison. All Robert does is surrender and fall in exhaustion on his face in front of Sweet. He’s completed his journey and sacrificed his life for his godson—his purpose, as far as he is concerned, is complete.

     My prayer for you this Christmas is that beyond the parties, presents, and busyness that come with the holiday, you would remember Jesus and his sacrifice for us by coming to this Earth as a humble infant and then dying on the cross thirty-three years later for our sins. He truly is the Reason for the Season. Merry Christmas!

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