Thursday, January 13, 2011

Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers (1913)

Illustration by Maynard Dixon, 1913
This Christmas story by Peter B. Kyne (1880-1957) is about as sentimental as they get. Three robbers (not three wise men, as the author points out) head off on foot across the California deserts after a failed bank job. Near a dried up waterhole, they find a pregnant young woman in an abandoned wagon. She’s in the final hours before giving birth.

The new mother dies, after leaving her infant son to the care of the three robbers. They promise her to be his godfathers and to bring him up right. With help from a book they find on baby care, the robbers bathe the newborn baby in olive oil and feed him from several cans of condensed milk.

After burying the woman’s body, they start on a 45-mile trek to a mining camp called New Jerusalem. With a dwindling supply of water, they are aware that only the youngest of them has a chance of surviving the trip.

Traveling by night, the man who was wounded in the robbery carries the baby first. The other older robber takes him second. Then the youngest carries on alone, covering the last miles under the desert sun with hungry coyotes dogging his steps. It is Christmas Eve.

Illustration by Maynard Dixon, 1913
Getting religion. The nakedly religious message of this story is unusual for western fiction. Men on the open range were not believers in much of anything beyond the material world. They held values based on a sense of fairness and human decency, but there was no turn-the-other-cheek morality. The code of the West was only a remote equivalent of the Ten Commandments.

It was a man’s world, and religion and morality were more a women’s affair. This feminine association is recalled as one of the robbers has memories of being taken to church by his mother. There, he remembers, was a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus, illuminated with light from a stained glass window.

When preachers appear in western fiction, they are the proverbial boar with tits and are often held up to scorn for that reason. The Virginian, for example, makes a fool of an itinerant minister by pretending to experience a midnight conversion. Still, if we can believe the folklore, cowboys were not atheists. They wouldn’t deny the existence of a Creator – or Satan, for that matter. They just didn’t live in fear of them.

Illustration by Maynard Dixon, 1913
Frontier theology. Kyne’s three godfathers make a good example of how religion seeps into this world. A bible gets quoted several times in the story, although even an armchair theologian would point out that there’s little biblical basis for the men's notions of the spiritual.

The God subscribed to is a deity who can be counted on, most of all, for fair play. He easily forgives a life of crimes and misdemeanors when a man performs a really good deed. Taking responsibility for the defenseless baby – risking their lives to save his – the three robbers show their true character. And it’s character, rather than repentance, that redeems them.

The two older robbers know they have committed too many sins in their lives to recover a lost innocence. Their hope, nevertheless, is that the youngest robber, just 20 years old, will live to lead a better life. The surviving godfather, as one of them says, will teach the boy “hoss-sense and respect.” And he adds, “Them’s the two great requirements of a man’s education” (p. 49).

There’s some poignance in Kyne’s portrayal of these tenderhearted bad men. Like the gang member in West Side Story, they’re depraved on account of they’re deprived. With a few good breaks and someone looking out for them, they might have been responsible, law-abiding citizens with loving wives and children. Sadly, their lives have taken another turn.

But it’s not too late for them. As the story approaches its ending, the light of the rising sun falls on a distant range of mountains as a sign of God’s good will. And thus a homespun brand of religious belief is celebrated. Banished is the Old Testament God of fire and brimstone. Instead, the story gives us a Heavenly Father who knows all and forgives all.

Shooting The Godchild (1974)
Wrapping up. Peter B. Kyne was born in San Francisco and grew up on his father’s ranch. He developed an early interest in sales, and his book The Go-Getter (1922) was one of several books popular among businessmen. He served in the Spanish-American War and WWI.

His writing career began in 1906 with the publication of his first short stories. “The Three Godfathers” appeared in the November 23, 1912, issue of The Saturday Evening Post – just in time for the holidays. A longer version was published in book form the following year.

Kyne’s contribution to the western was more prominent in Hollywood, where his stories and original screenplays saw frequent production. Of  his 111 writing credits at, his first is for a 1914 adaptation of B. M. Bower’s Chip of the Flying U, starring Tom Mix. A story in The Saturday Evening Post became the origin of the Broncho Billy series of shorts, which began in 1910.

The Three Godfathers was filmed numerous times under different titles, with silent versions in 1916, 1919, and 1921. Three sound versions followed in 1930, 1936, and 1948. The last of these was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., and Pedro Armendáriz. A made-for-TV version, The Godchild, was produced in 1974, with Jack Palance, Jack Warden, and Keith Carradine. Meanwhile, yet another new production of the story has been slated for release in 2013.

Kyne’s name shows up occasionally in the opening credits of surviving B-westerns like Hoot Gibson’s Wild Horse (1931). His story “The Tie That Binds” (1929) was made into a Johnny Mack Brown serial called Flaming Frontiers in 1938 (available at netflix). His novel, The Three Godfathers, is available free online.

Further reading:
Photo credits:
Illustrations from the 1913 edition of the book, by Maynard Dixon
Photo of 1974 production, Edwards AFB,

Coming up: Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red (1914)


  1. Thanks for such a detailed review and history of this story. I have seen the John Ford movie on TCM a few years ago, and I remember enjoying it, but I'd like to revisit it. Have you seen any of the other versions?

  2. In addition to appearing in the slicks, Kyne also had stories in POPULAR MAGAZINE. I've read several of his Sgt. Ryan stories, a humorous series dealing with army life.

  3. Hey!!!! Got this one! Ha! My favourite film so far, is the JW,HCJn,and PA. Got to be a feel good film?

  4. This is such a great review. Loved the movie. Didn't even know it was based on a book.

  5. If the Tucson killer had had any "hoss sense and respect" that massacre would never have happened. Another great review!

  6. Cullen, I looked for the other versions, but I don't know if they even exist anymore.

    Walker, I intend to read more of Kyne, especially since Rhodes was so partial to him.

    Cheyenne, it's in my queue at netflix.

    Patti, thanks.

    Oscar, sounds like he was challenged in a number of ways...

  7. Ron, I love the film. I know, I would love the book.