Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Three Godfathers by Peter B Kyne




Peter B Kyne (1880 – 1957) was an American novelist who published between 1904 and 1940. Many of his works were adapted into film screenplays, starting during the silent movie era. More than a hundred pictures were made from his works between 1914 and 1952, fifty of them Westerns, many of the earliest without consent or compensation.


Kyne in the 1930s


Kyne himself regarded his first work, the novella The Three Godfathers, first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1912, as his best story. Indeed, he even called it “a work of art”. It may be, though having just read it, I’d have to say that as art, it is pretty kitsch, at least by modern standards.



It’s a tale of three surviving bank robbers (the opening has a tinge of Northfield about it), who are referred to throughout as The Wounded Bad Man (he has a bullet in his chest, which will prove fatal), The Worst Bad Man and The Youngest Bad Man, though we later learn their names are Bill, Tom and Bob, respectively. Escaping on foot, they come across a wagon at a dried-up water hole with only a woman in it, who is about to give birth. The baby boy is delivered but the mother dies, after securing a promise from the Three Bad Men that they will be godfathers to the infant, save him and bring him to safety. They set out across the desert for the symbolically-named mining camp of New Jerusalem, suffering extreme hardships, two of them succumbing but the Youngest Bad Man and the baby just making it.


The tale is overtly religious, full of biblical allusions and cloyingly sentimental – I’d say saccharine.


But it was a best-seller in its day, and it wasn’t long before the movie business took an interest. Already in 1916 it was made as The Three Godfathers by Universal, a six-reeler directed by Edward LeSaint, with Harry Carey as Bob – his son Harry Carey Jr would be one of the godfathers in 1948.


The 1916 version


In 1919, John Ford, no less, would remake it as a five-reeler titled Marked Men, with Harry Carey again in the lead, though this time as his habitual hero Cheyenne Harry, and J Farrell MacDonald and Joe Harris as the other two godfathers.


Harry again in MARKED MEN


It looks pretty sentimentally religious, this one


Ford seems to have had another go at it in the early 20s. According to Wikipedia, “Action is a 1921 American silent Western film directed by John Ford and featuring Hoot Gibson. It was based on Peter B. Kyne’s popular novel The Three Godfathers. The film is considered to be lost.” It co-starred with Gibson John Ford’s brother Francis and J Farrell MacDonald again.


The poster says the story is by J Allen Dunn


So already by the end of the sound era the yarn had been made into a movie three times. Tragically, we cannot see these today. So many silent movies have been lost. Woe is us.


In 1929 studio boss Carl Laemmle decided to make the story Universal’s first sound Western and first sound picture to be shot outdoors, and this one does still exist. Laemmle’s son, Carl Jr, had just taken over the reins (as a 21st birthday present) and picked his cousin to direct it (the studio was famous for its nepotism) but Junior had the great good fortune that his cousin happened to be William Wyler. The result was Hell’s Heroes, soon to be reviewed you will be thrilled to learn, which, in my view anyway, is by far the best film version made of the rather tacky tale. But more on Hell’s Heroes soon.


The three bad men in Willy Wyler’s version


The following year Universal also remade it as a cartoon, Hell’s Heels, an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit epic.


Essential viewing


In 1936, MGM had a go. Metro’s Three Godfathers (with no definite article), directed by Richard Boleslawski, made many changes to the story, including the names of the characters. It starred Chester Morris as Bob (so that was accurate anyway), with Lewis Stone as Doc and Walter Brennan as Gus. It was a big picture with many qualities and a large cast, shot by four-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg in Mojave Desert locations.


1936 version


On the set (with lead actor and his stunt double)


In 1948, John Ford made it yet again, as 3 Godfathers, with John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr as the three bad men. Rather curiously, the characters have changed names, so that leader (Duke) is Bob, while the youngest (Dobe) is Bill. It was made in color this time and beautifully shot by Winton Hoch, again in the Mojave Desert. This film was the most ‘religious’ of them, in that rather sentimental Fordian Catholic way, and in that sense closest to the book, though once again many changes were made to the story, with added characters and plot.




In 1974 there was a TV movie, The Godchild, screened by ABC, in which three Union POWs (Jack Palance, Jack Warden and Keith Carradine) fleeing across the desert to escape both their Confederate pursuers and rampaging Apaches, come across a dying woman and her infant child. They promise the woman that they will take care of the child and get it to safety.


John Badham directs the TV movie


Animated films such as Ice Age (2002) and Tokyo Godfathers (2003) have taken the plot and run with it. Other films may not have been directly attributable to the Kyne novella but still tapped into the ‘three bad men doing the right thing’ vibe. John Ford (yet again) made 3 Bad Men in 1926, from the Herman Whitaker story Over the Border. J Farrell MacDonald was (yet again) one of the bad men. In it, three outlaws come to the aid of a young girl after her father is killed. This silent had similarities to Three Bad Men and a Girl, of 1915, directed by Francis Ford and with John (then Jack) Ford as an actor. And so on. Because the ‘good badman’ was such a staple Western character, Kyne’s story and similar yarns had an obvious appeal. Consider Four Faces West (1948) in which bank robber Joel McCrea sacrifices his getaway in order to nurse two small boys with diphtheria. The arithmetic is different (one badman and two children) but the story is essentially the same.


In 2017 yet another remake was announced, to be written and produced by Stephen L’Heureux, cast unknown, or indeed actual status.


So the story has sure got its share of screen time.


You could read the original, for interest, and because it’s kind of a landmark. It’s cheap to buy and won’t take you long. On the other hand, it’s pretty mawkish, in my view, and if you don’t read it, you won’t die of heartbreak or be considered unread.



4 Responses

  1. An excellent survey. I’ve seen several, the best. Ford and Wayne in 1948 but close behind the Boleslawski and Chester Morris retelling. Looking forward to more on this subject.

  2. Haven’t read the story but as this reply covers all three of the extant films, posting it here. With apologies for the length…

    I recently bought the Warners Archive DVD with the 1929 and ’36 versions and waited til the Christmas season to watch them and (re)watch the 1948 one. A great treble-bill! I understand why you judge the 1929 one the best. I think they’re all equally good (and all partly flawed), each in their own way – fun and fascinating to compare how different they are in plot points, style and feel despite identical source material.

    The Wyler is certainly a revelation. Its relentless stark simplicity sets it apart from the others, so does its startling pre-Code toughness. Like any 1929 sound film it has its technical crudenesses – you sense the crew is learning on the job how to handle the new hardware and techniques, but there’s some great compositions and a few startling tracking shots, and the acting is uniformly good. Interesting to read (after watching) your account of Wyler’s preferred ending, but the surviving one worked fine for me.

    Moving on to 1936, it’s a study in how far Hollywood technique had advanced in seven years. Much less experimental – fluent, polished and with studio filmmaking conventions fully evolved. Which has its downsides – the first reel, with the church social etc and the romantic backstory, is the weakest. But from thereon, it’s darn good. Another visually fine film from a directorial/cinematographic viewpoint, and mostly great acting. I particularly like Lewis Stone’s ‘Doc’ – is there any other character quite like this in Westerns? A bankrobber with a PhD and a penchant for quoting Schopenhauer, Milton and Shakespeare! Brennan is naturally great and I feel that Chester Morris’s performance significantly improves as the film goes on. The ending may be mawkish in theory but it’s done well in practice, no complaints here.

    So to Ford… I get why this film divides people. We all agree the cinematography is superb. We can probably all agree the film is too long and sags in the middle, should’ve been cut by approx. 15 mins. Beyond that I really like it, I just think you have to accept that Ford is completely ignoring the two previous versions (if he ever saw them), instead harking back to the innocence of early westerns and producing something that, as with a few (but not all) of his films is, not meant to be a realistic drama, resembling a novel, but evoking more a morality play, a pageant or, as you say in your review, renaissance painting, with the Christian symbolism very overt. If you can embrace all that – in a way, see the film through the eyes of a child rather than a cynical adult – then I think, apart from the draggy length, it’s otherwise perfect in every way. But it certainly wouldn’t be the film I’d use to introduce John Ford to a non-aficionado.

    How lucky we are to be able to compare these three films, just a shame we don’t have the silents to go with. Happy Christmas.

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