Thursday, May 7, 2015

The History of John Ford: 3 Godfathers (1948)

When Orson Welles was asked what movies he studied before embarking on directing Citizen Kane he replied, "I studied the Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." 

Running parallel with our series about Akira Kurosawa ("Walking Kurosawa's Road"), we're running a series of pieces about the closest thing America has to Kurosawa in artistry—director John Ford. Ford rarely made films set in the present day, but (usually) made them about the past...and about America's past, specifically (when he wasn't fulfilling a passion for his Irish roots). In "The History of John Ford" we'll be gazing fondly at the work of this American Master, who started in the Silent Era, learning his craft, refining his director's eye, and continuing to work deep into the 1960's (and his 70's) to produce the greatest body of work of any American "picture-maker," America's storied film-maker, the irascible, painterly, domineering, sentimental puzzle that was John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.

3 Godfathers (John Ford, 1948) Ford's version of The Nativity Story set in the very wild West is a remake of his 1919 silent film Marked Men,* which starred Harry Carey. The son of John Ford's first star, Harry Carey Jr. made his acting debut in this one as The Abilene Kid, who along with John Wayne and Pedro Armendáriz, play former cattle rustlers up-scaling to bank robbery. After the meager heist, they escape a posse from Welcome, Arizona (led by Ward Bond's Sheriff B. Sweet, as well as Hank Worden and Ben Johnson) by taking a perilous escape route through the desert (it was filmed in Death Valley)—not the wisest of men or maneuvers. Their flight leaves them wounded, their water supply draining and quickly losing every means of survival in the desert.

Things get complicated when, looking for water, they come across an established well that a tenderfoot, in his ignorance and panic has dynamited in an an attempt to get more water, destroying it. If that weren't bad enough, he's run off into the desert to find his stock, driven loco by alkaline poisoning, leaving behind his wife (Mildred Natwick) delirious and about to give birth. Unbeknownst to them, she's the niece of Sheriff Sweet's.  
Armendáriz, Wayne and Carey Jr. don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' no babies
The leader of the group Bob Hightower (Wayne) can't cope with the intricacies of the situation, leaving "Pete" Rocafuerte (Armendáriz) to deliver the baby, and when the mother dies, leaving the three with a promise to care for the child she has named Robert William Pedro, the three villains must learn the basics of child-care (thanks to a book written by "Doc Meechum"), but with limited supplies they must cross the desert, led by a single star to the town of New Jerusalem (the other choices are Cairo and Damascus). It isn't long before The Kid tells them it's their Destiny, that they were led to this place, this child, this duty, this precedent.  
It is, after all, almost Christmas.
It's a sweet story, about how the spirit turns with the charge of a newborn, and how even those on a downward spiral can be lifted up by a lack of self. And Ford, working with screenwriters Frank Nugent (a new find with his Fort Apache script) and Laurence Stallings (with whom Ford and Nugent would collaborate on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) keeps the sentiment high, and the humor all over the map from leaden to subtle. Even without its silent roots (Mae Marsh from The Birth of a Nation has a large role!), the film, in tone, feels like a throwback to an earlier time, like Ford's work in the '30's circa Stagecoach—not a bad time at all. And, in the timeline of his work this looks like a wave good-bye to his western work of the past, as Ford would subtly move on to the slightly more serious She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to the dire The Searchers within the space of seven years.  
It was about this time that Wayne's performance in Howard Hawks' Red River (playing "old" at 41 years of age) was noticed by everyone, and notably Ford, who had still been using Wayne in co-starring roles. "I didn't know the big sonuvabitch could act!" Ford groused to Hawks. 3 Godfathers is Wayne stepping into the limelight of Ford's films, where he would stay (mostly) for the rest of Ford's career. And, as with the humor of the film, Wayne's performance covers a lot of ground, leaden to subtle. His physical work is unmatched, as usual, casually sitting on a horse as if it was an easy chair, stumbling through the desert in an alarming drunk march (supposedly holding a baby, which throw some scary drama into it, if you think about it), doing little character things you only notice later, like the way Hightower trudges dumbly through an edge-of-town water collection at the start of the film before it becomes of the utmost importance, and something that seems peculiarly florid and over-the-top but pays off hugely throughout the film: Hightower is something of a jerk and mean-spirited and given to elaborate mock-formality when teasing others, especially the way he takes off his hat and does a too-formal presentation of it. It looks phony (it is phony for this rough man of the West), but it turns into genuine acts of kindness and civility—the man grows into the gesture and becomes him, a signature of the man he has become through the trails and tribulations that have become the period to a life of bad manners, bad habits and bad choices. And the film ends with that same gesture, sending the man off to his fate, but promising the return of a better man and a better future.
The resonant gesture of John Wayne in its most practical usage:
Thanks to the Way of Seeing blog for noticing this one.
This is all done with pictures, part of the skein of direction that Ford imposes on the film that, combined with the exquisite cinematography of Winton Hoch, makes this odd, anti-Christmas Christmas film something of a precious gem for the Holidays.

* There is also a harder edged 1936 version starring Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan, directed by Richard Boleshawski.

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