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Three Godfathers: Cowboy Christmas Movie

on December 15, 2021

Mise-en-scene is a French phrase meaning production. In theatrical terms, this means “staging or putting on an action or scene” (Barsam 165). The two largest components of mise-en-scene are design and composition, which include settings, props, lighting, actors, makeup, hairstyles, costumes, overall organization, presentation, and integration. The finished product must look and feel cohesive and balanced, fully supporting the story and theme of the movie, as well as the genre, in every respect.

The 1948 movie, 3 Godfathers, directed by John Ford and Merian C. Cooper, stars John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, Harry Carey, Jr., and Ward Bond. The story is John Ford’s version (and vision) of the New Testament story of the Three Wise Men, incorporated into the western genre. Above all, it is a story about sin and redemption, supported by Biblical symbolism and themes of Old West justice.

The movie setting is open because the characters have to be able to move around. Most of the movie was filmed on location in Death Valley, California (not Arizona.) Rousing western music, composed of themes from well-known cowboy songs, supports the title scenes. The major underlying musical theme is from the song “Streets of Laredo.” The movie is filmed in Technicolor, which adds vibrancy to the spectacular natural scenery, costumes, and characters.

While the titles play, we see a train chugging along from the right of the scene, crossing the open desert. The camera cuts to three horsemen riding through the desert. They are dressed in typical cowboy clothing. The Mexican cowboy is appropriately dressed in Mexican clothing. The next cut shows John Wayne sitting on a horse at twilight, framed by two saguaro cactuses. He is clearly the main character. A quotation appears in white letters: “Bright star of the early western sky . . .” These scenes confirm that viewers are watching a western set some time in the 1880s-1890s. The quote reminds viewers of the star of Bethlehem. At the end of the titles, the viewers see a wide shot of the western landscape and the three horsemen riding toward the camera.

At a water hole, John Wayne (Robert Hightower) orders the other two men to fill up all canteens and water bags because they won’t find another water hole for at least 60 miles. The camera zooms in on Robert smoking and looking out over the landscape. He is clearly the leader. He joins Pedro, the Mexican, in a tight close-up, and they plan robbing the bank in the nearby town of Welcome, Arizona. Next, Robert crouches down at the third man’s level in a close-up shot of him and William. William is the youngest member of this gang.

The gang rides into the town. It is obviously a well-established town because of the grown trees and flower gardens. John Ford introduces a joke here. The first man the gang meets is B. Sweet (Ward Bond), who is tending his oleander bushes. The men laugh and joke about his name. His wife comes out of the house, dressed in a traditional western gown and hairstyle. She calls her husband “Pearly.” The laughs get even louder over this. Sweet redeems his manhood by clarifying that his name is actually Buck. He swats his wife on the behind with an oleander branch, telling the gang that his wife is a former dancer (presumably in a saloon.) He slips on his leather sheriff’s vest and star, and the gang is caught off guard. The implication is clear: B. Sweet is no tenderfoot from the East but a hardened westerner and experienced lawman. He and his wife offer hospitality to the men, believing they are cowboys from a cattle drive passing through town, and mention that their niece and her never-do-well husband are traveling to Welcome along the Mormon Trail.

Asking for the location of the bank does not rouse much suspicion. But William forgets himself, reveling in the motherly attention he is receiving from the sheriff’s wife, and mentions that people also call him The Abilene Kid. The Sheriff immediately becomes suspicious. When the men leave for the bank, he looks through a book of wanted posters and finds one of The Abilene Kid.

On the way to the bank, a stage pulls into town. A well-dressed young lady greets the gang, happy to leave civilization in Denver and return to her less-civilized town. She reveals that she is the bank president’s daughter and overwhelms the gang with sweetness and perfect manners. (As a minor character, she represents civilized manners and social status.) Two young dandies greet her with bouquets of oleanders (a desert-thriving plant), and it’s clear that she is a popular young lady. Her homecoming provides a distraction for the town while the gang robs the bank.

The typical western scene ensues. Shots are fired, and the sheriff and his deputies rush to capture the men. There are wonderful scenes of a man trying to calm a bucking horse and a scared horse running through the street, pulling an empty covered wagon. As the sheriff and his men chase the gang in a buckboard wagon, William is shot and rescued by Robert. The posse chases the gang into the desert wilderness and quits after the sheriff shoots a hole in Robert’s water bag. Although the sheriff says, “They aren’t paying me to kill folks,” he knows that the gang will die without water.

When Robert discovers the ruined water bag, he laments, “You know, he busted that on purpose,” understanding that the sheriff has condemned the men to death in the desert (Old West justice.) Robert observes that they are playing a game of chess with the sheriff and changes their flight plan.

At this point, the gang is forced to leave all vestiges of civilization and head into the barren desert. (Biblically, this represents the Hebrews going into the desert during the Exodus and undergoing cleansing and purification in order to learn obedience and faith in God.) They immediately plunge into a world of sand dunes, sandstorms, salt flats, and rocks. It’s man against nature.

In many scenes, Ford has the characters walking into the sun, the wind, the sand storms, making their journey even more arduous. He uses tight close-up shots to convey the tight bond between the men. He uses wide screen shots to convey the barrenness and openness of the environment. The landscape is beautiful, yes, but dangerous and deadly.

The men lose their horses after a sandstorm and have to walk. Pedro swears that “the devils came in the middle of the night.” The sheriff arrives at Apache Wells with his men (some locations are named after Arizona Indian tribes.) It is here that we learn it is Christmas time. Snow-capped mountains rise up in the background.

The gang arrives at Terrapin Tanks, and this is where the story changes from a typical western to a morality play. The men plan to get water to fill their canteens but discover a wagon containing a pregnant woman instead. Her husband, out of a greenhorn’s ignorance, has blown up the water hole with dynamite, believing he could retrieve more water. Instead, he has permanently lost access to the water supply. Since he is not around, the gang assumes that he is dead. But they celebrate his death. His actions have ensured the deaths of future travelers looking for water. Old West justice demands that the man die.

Pedro demonstrates great compassion and tenderness when he helps the woman give birth to a son (the Christ Child.) The other two men squeeze water out of barrel head cactuses and give it to the mother. It’s night, and the mother asks the three men to be godfathers to her son and keep him alive. They agree. She names the child Robert William Pedro Hightower, after the three men. Finally, the mother says, “We must be moving on,” and dies. The camera focuses on a dead tree and a lighted lantern, framed in the back opening of the wagon’s canvas cover. The lantern dies out, and the dead tree forms a foreboding and forbidding vision of death.

The men give the mother a proper Christian burial. Robert stands by as a skeptic. But the baby brings the men joy, wonder, and hope. They argue over how to care for the baby, demonstrate their love, compassion, and tenderness for the new life, and overcome some of their roughness.  The baby also brings some much-needed comic relief. At the same time, in parallel shots, the sheriff at Apache Wells is viewing Robert as a good chess player and figures out that the gang has gone to Terrapin Tanks. The chase is on.

As the men become more desperate for water, they argue and draw guns on each other. William uses the Bible for guidance and decides that they were not brought into the desert by accident. Like the Three Wise Men in the Bible, they were meant to find the baby (the Christ Child) and save him (from the elements instead of King Herod.) After throwing out the names of nearby towns (all Biblical), they decide to head East to New Jerusalem (representing redemption and salvation.) The camera cuts to a beautifully-photographed scene showing a bright star in the eastern sky, shining down on sand dunes rippled with shadowy contrasts. The three men trudge across the scene, traveling West to East, receiving hope and strength from the star.

The sheriff finds the abandoned wagon and figures out that it belonged to his niece and her worthless husband. He blames the gang for blowing up the water hole with dynamite, even though they are innocent. He curses them as murderers of future travelers and swears to hunt them down.

William and Pedro both die while crossing a cracked, parched salt flat after asking for forgiveness from God. Robert saves William’s Bible and moves on. It is Christmas. He must climb over the mountain. (Biblically, going up into the mountain represents searching for God.) He takes shelter in a rock-walled passage, which resembles a cave. He falls down, hopeless. He gives the last water to the baby and starts throwing away unnecessary items. In a last desperate act, he opens up the Bible and reads the passage. The passage tells him to take the donkey and its colt. Angrily, Robert throws away the Bible, considering the passage a cruel joke.

Crazed by thirst, Robert hears William and Pedro talking and singing and egging him on. The camera shows them as ghosts walking behind him. Suddenly, framed by the rock walls, Robert sees a donkey and its colt. He cannot believe it, but they are real, and he looks up to the sky, hardly believing that the New Testament passage has come true.

Robert makes it to town and bursts into a saloon, where the people are somberly singing Christmas carols. The people are overjoyed to see the baby, and the piano player plays “Silent Night.” The sheriff confronts Robert here, and he collapses to the floor.

An obvious fade out/fade in pushes the story forward into the future. The whole town treats Robert like a King for saving the baby. The judge sentences him to only one year and one day in prison and grants him custody. As Robert is leaving on the train for prison, the banker’s daughter asks him if she can write, and it is obvious that she will wait for him. When Robert returns, he has a chance of becoming a civilized man.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

December 18, 2017; December 15, 2021

Copyright 2017-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Works Cited:

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.


6 responses to “Three Godfathers: Cowboy Christmas Movie

  1. Iowa Life says:

    Love the ending of that one. Ward Bond was always a favorite, he tended to play Ward Bond usually. Dead at 57, big voice. Sounds like a true patriot in his IMDB bio.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought of you when I posted it, I know how much you like John Wayne. It truly is a good movie. I have it on DVD and watch it every year at Christmas. It always amazes me that anyone survived the desert in those days. They must have been a lot tougher back then. Have a blessed day!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is a late 1940th movie, there had to be a sweet happy ending, new realism had not yet been discovered. As an atheist, having not much liking for biblical genres, I am impressed by the adaptation, how the director did turn the tale about the three wise men into a western.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought I had seen every John Wayne movie but I don’t believe I’ve seen this one! It’s now on my Christmas movie wish list for this weekend!!! Thank you 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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