It's hardly shameful that The 3 Godfathers ranks as the slightest John Ford Western in a five-year arc that includes My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, and Rio Grande. The source, a Peter B. Kyne story both hard-bitten and sentimental, had already been filmed at least five times—once by Ford himself as Marked Men (1919). The star of that silent version, Harry Carey, had recently died. This remake is dedicated to him ("Bright Star of the early western sky") and proudly introduces his son, Harry Carey Jr. (who had already appeared in Howard Hawks's Red River—as did his father—but we won't quibble).
Just before Christmas, three workaday outlaws (John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, Harry Carey Jr.) rob a bank in Welcome, Arizona, and flee into the desert. The canny town marshal (Ward Bond) moves swiftly to cut them off from the wells along their escape route, so they make for another, deep in the wasteland. There's no water waiting for them, but there is a woman (Mildred Natwick) on the verge of death—and also of giving birth. The three badmen accept her dying commission as godfathers to the newborn. Motley variants of the Three Wise Men, they strike out for the town of New Jerusalem with her Bible as roadmap. It becomes increasingly apparent that saving the child's life will cost them their own.
Ford's is the softest retelling of the tale; in place of Kyne's bitter/triumphant final twist, he adds a very broad comic postlude. Elsewhere, the nearly sacramental treatment of the mother's death is followed by an extended gosh-almighty sequence of the banditos reading up on childcare. But it's all played with great gusto and tenderness—especially by Wayne, who's rarely been more appealing. Visually the film is one knockout shot after another. This was Ford's first Western in Technicolor, as well as his first collaboration with cinematographer Winton Hoch. What they do with sand ripples and shadows and long plumes of train smoke is rapturously beautiful. It's also often too arty by half, but who can blame them?