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3 Godfathers (1948) [Warner Archive Blu-ray review]

The 1948 classic “3 Godfathers,” directed by the legendary John Ford, stands as a monumental entry in the annals of American Western cinema. This film, steeped in biblical allegories and rich in the themes of redemption, brotherhood, and the transformative power of self-sacrifice, presents a unique blend of rugged Western tropes with deeply emotional, character-driven storytelling.

The film featuring John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, and Harry Carey Jr. as the titular godfathers, the film navigates their perilous journey through the desert after a bank robbery goes awry, leading them to a vow to protect a newborn infant at all costs. If you’re an anime nerd, that has seen Tokyo Godfathers but nothing on TCM…you should be able to get the gist.

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3 Godfathers feels like the film when John Ford became the Ford of the 1950s

“3 Godfathers” is characterized by its linear narrative that follows the three outlaws – Robert Hightower (Wayne), Pedro Roca Fuerte (Armendáriz), and William Kearney (Carey Jr.) – as they stumble upon a dying woman in the desert who entrusts her newborn baby to their care. This pivotal moment catalyzes the central narrative arc, as the men, initially driven by self-preservation, evolve into selfless caretakers. Ford masterfully interweaves the harsh realities of the Western frontier with the poignant journey of redemption, utilizing the desert landscape not only as a backdrop but as a character in its own right, shaping the destiny of the protagonists.

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The Three Wise Men go West

The film is imbued with rich thematic undercurrents, drawing heavily from biblical stories, most notably the tale of the Three Wise Men. This allegorical framework elevates the narrative, positioning the baby as a symbol of hope and redemption for the outlaws. The themes of redemption are further explored through the characters’ transformation, as their treacherous journey through the desert becomes a metaphorical passage towards salvation. Ford juxtaposes the brutality of the outlaws’ past lives with their growing sense of responsibility and care for the infant, challenging the audience’s perceptions of morality and redemption.

Outlaw Country with a new purpose

The strength of “3 Godfathers” lies in its nuanced character development, with each of the three outlaws undergoing a profound personal journey. John Wayne’s portrayal of Hightower showcases a rugged exterior that gradually peels away to reveal a compassionate, paternal figure, marking one of Wayne’s more complex roles. Pedro Armendáriz and Harry Carey Jr. deliver equally compelling performances, contributing to the dynamic portrayal of brotherhood and sacrifice. The interactions among the trio, filled with humor, tension, and tenderness, provide a deep insight into their evolving relationships and individual growth.

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I really dig the work of Winton Hoch

John Ford’s direction and cinematography in “3 Godfathers” is a testament to his visionary approach to filmmaking. The use of the sprawling desert landscape, captured through wide shots, emphasizes the isolation and vulnerability of the characters, while the strategic use of close-ups fosters an intimate connection with the audience. Ford’s composition and framing choices further enhance the emotional weight of the narrative, creating a visually stunning and emotionally resonant cinematic experience.

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John Ford begins an amazing run with 3 Godfathers

“3 Godfathers” remains a seminal work within the Western genre and John Ford’s filmography, celebrated for its innovative blend of genre conventions with deep thematic exploration and character-driven narrative. The film not only showcases Ford’s masterful direction and the compelling performances of its lead actors but also stands as a poignant exploration of the human capacity for change and redemption. Its influence extends beyond its immediate release, inspiring subsequent filmmakers and contributing to the evolution of the Western genre.

In conclusion, “3 Godfathers” is more than just a Western; it is a complex narrative of redemption, brotherhood, and sacrifice. John Ford’s direction, combined with the stellar performances of John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, and Harry Carey Jr., and the film’s rich thematic depth, create a cinematic masterpiece that transcends its genre. As a piece of film history, “3 Godfathers” continues to resonate with audiences, serving as a powerful testament to the enduring legacy of John Ford and the transformative potential of cinema.

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3 Godfathers is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive

3 Godfathers now has a brand-new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. It’s pretty impressive with a robust 1080p transfer. The Richard Boleslawski version from 1936 looks incredible too, but it also seems like it was due to have a restoration. The DTS-HD 2.0 track is quite mono, but it should be. There is weird audio separation that makes the 1930s version sound odder than the main feature. It might be my ears, but I noticed it more during exterior scenes.

The special features range pretty wildly, but pretty amazing. You get the 1936 version of the film, plus trailers for both movies. I love it when that happens and it’s a practice that I initially saw Criterion doing more in recent years, but I’m thrilled to see Warner Brothers has dived into it. For the sake of film history and enthusiasts trying to learn more, it helps to have multiple iterations of the same movie for cross comparison.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of 3 Godfathers will boil down to two things. How much do you enjoy John Ford and how much do you enjoy John Wayne? For some, this will be enough to generate a Medium article about why this movie doesn’t count in 2024. Honestly, I feel if you’re not going to give it a fair shot, you’re missing out. So watch 3 Godfathers today!

3 Godfathers is now available from the Warner Archive Collection. Purchase your own copy at MovieZyng!

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