Friday, December 30, 2005

JSB: "Three Godfathers"



The other night I happened to see TCM was showing Three Godfathers (not the John Wayne version, which I'm not a real fan of; nor does it refer to Marlon Brando in his latter years). This was the 1936 version, and I almost didn't watch it, except that I saw Chester Morris was in it. I always thought Morris was a strong leading man in the early 30's, and didn't know why he didn't go on to greater popularity (although he did do the Boston Blackie serials and a lot of TV). Maybe this movie is part of the reason. It's a really challenging movie, and Morris doesn't go for the sugar coated leading man role. He's a real stinker. But this turns out to be one of the best Christian movies ever made in Hollywood, I do believe, for that very reason.

***Spoilers ahead ****

The film is about three bank robbers who take it on the lam in the desert. Then they come across a dying woman in a covered wagon, and her baby. Before that, they're in the town of "New Jerusalem," and Morris is really magnetic here, and funny, and totally ruthless. He kills a guy in cold blood.

He says to his two cohorts to leave the woman and the baby and get going, because they have to get water and get away with all their loot. But the older of the trio insists on taking the baby when the woman dies right in front of him.

So the movie is about these three men and a baby, so to speak. Morris is against the baby the whole way. But then the old guy, who is wounded, can't go on. He knows it (their horses died drinking poison water, and they're on foot, and will barely make it anyway). He tells the other two to go, and gives the baby to Walter Brennan, #2 guy. Morris is still unhappy. As they go along, they hear the gunshot. The old guy has shot himself. Wow! In a 1936 Western?
The other two walk on. It's looking bleak. Then Brennan decides to leave his share of the loot for the baby, and a note to Morris to give the kid a break, and then Brennan walks out to HIS death! Dark stuff.

Morris wakes up to see he's alone with the baby. Well, he's not going to take the baby. He starts to walk away. A rattlesnake approaches the baby. (Can anyone say Satan and the church?)
Morris whips around just in time to shoot the snake. And decides to take the baby with him.

Well, they're not going to make back to "New Jerusalem". Morris figures if he only had some water now (he gave the last of it to the baby) he could make it. But the watering hole he's at is the same poisoned hole that killed the horses. Not right away, though. He knows if he drinks he'll have an hour or so of life.

So...for the kid, he drinks. He makes it back to New Jerusalem, where the town is gathered in church. He marches in and hands the baby to the woman who spurned him (the guy he shot was her fiance). And then he dies.

What makes it work, what keeps it from sentimentality, is the great performance by Morris and the script refusing to soft peddle him. It's a lesson for Christian writers, too. You don't have to force the theme. Give us real, and flawed, characters and it'll be so much more powerful.

James Scott Bell, http://www.jamesscottbell.com , is writing books when he's not watching classic movies or drinking coffee at Starbucks.

2 Comments:

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Patty said...

What makes it work, what keeps it from sentimentality, is the great performance by Morris and the script refusing to soft peddle him. It's a lesson for Christian writers, too. You don't have to force the theme. Give us real, and flawed, characters and it'll be so much more powerful.

So well said, Jim! I'll have to look this one up.

 
At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Nick said...

I've not seen this older version, only the JW version.

For another great Christian movie from this era, don't miss "Strange Cargo" with Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Ian Hunter. Unforgettable!

 

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