The three robbers encounter an abandoned woman in a covered wagon, about to give birth. The woman dies soon after giving birth, but not before making the men promise that they will protect and raise the baby.
How others will see it. In its opening credits, the film is dedicated to Harry Carey, "a bright star in the early western sky." Carey was the lead in a silent version of The Three Godfathers from 1916. Ford cast Carey Jr. in the present film in part as a tribute to his late father.
Two other versions preceded 3 Godfathers, Hell's Heroes from 1929, and Three Godfathers from 1936. The basic story idea later re-emerged as a comedy, without the bandit aspects, in films such as Three Men and a Cradle (France, 1985), and the wildly popular Three Men and a Baby (1987).
The film's sentimental and religious qualities have dimmed its popularity over the years. Nonetheless, production values keep the imdb.com user rating at a respectable 7.3 out of 10. The film has nearly 10K user votes, aided by color cinematography, unusual for a 1940s western.
How I felt about it. Despite a fine cast and appealing cinematography, this is a somewhat dodgy Ford-Wayne movie. Problems regularly arise. The most consequential is that our three leads are bank robbers but never act like outlaws, aside from being on the run.
Carey Jr., in particular, acts more like a church choir singer than a bank robber. But Wayne and Armend´riz show more consideration for the baby and each other than is credible given their desperate situation. And before the robbery, they wouldn't be casually chatting with the locals, drawing attention to themselves.
It is obvious that in most shots the "baby" must be a doll wrapped from head to toe in a white cloth that never gets dirty. Mildred Natwick is clearly miscast as the baby's mother. It is a one in a hundred shot for Ward Bond to hit the water bag instead of a bank robber or a horse. With four dead people and one live adult, a bank robber would have much explaining to do, baby or no baby.
Then there all the coincidences. The three outlaws go out of their way to greet a stranger who just happens to be sheriff. They encounter a woman in the middle of the desert, alone, who just happens to be giving birth, and just happens to have Perly as her closest living relative.
It is good, though, that a Mexican is second-billed, and he plays a Mexican. And it has to be admitted that John Wayne is a compelling actor.
John Wayne and director John Ford were frequent collaborators. In fact, they made more than twenty films together, going back to 1928 and the silent era. Many were westerns, including Stagecoach (1939), probably their best film together.
3 Godfathers is often shown at Christmas (the film was first released in December 1948) due to its religious overtones. The outlaws see themselves as parallels to the biblical three wise men. The bible itself is a frequently used prop, with passages sometimes read from it. The theme is redemption for the bandits, which comes as a result of their care for the helpless baby.
This was the last film in the lengthy career of character actor Guy Kibbee, here playing a judge. Familiar faces Jane Darwell and Hank Worden also have entertaining supporting roles.