The 3 Godfathers begins when outlaws Robert Hightower, played by John Wayne, Pedro “Pete” Rocafuerte, played by Pedro Armendáriz, and William Kearney aka The Abilene Kid, played by Harry Carey Jr., ride into the western town of Welcome, Arizona. The three plan to rob the bank of the small town despite being some of the nicest bank robbers ever portrayed on film.
Prior to robbing the bank, the trio meets Buck Sweet, played by frequent Wayne co-star Ward Bond. Sweet is the town welcoming committee, and moonlights as the local sheriff. Sweet recalls a wanted poster for the Kid, but doesn’t confirm his suspicions until after the robbers have held up the bank at gun point. Sweet interrupts the trio’s getaway, and is able to put a bullet into the Kid’s shoulder.
The bank robbers high tail it towards the desert, but Sweet is able to put another bullet into the criminals’ water bag, severely limiting their plans to stay hydrated. The trio escapes the posse, but soon lose their own horses in a sandstorm. Hightower and the gang begin walking, looking for another water source, while trying to stay one step ahead of Sweet and his newly deputized group of mercenaries.
The trio eventually makes it to a local water hole, but finds it dried out due to a pioneer inadvertently destroying it with dynamite. Additionally, they find that the pioneer has left his pregnant wife with the wagon while he went out, apparently unsuccessfully, to find water.
The robbers help the woman deliver the baby. The mother is grateful for their assistance and pronounces that all three of them will be the baby’s godfathers. She names the baby Robert William Pedro. She extracts a promise from the three men that they will take care of the little Robert, shortly before she dies. The men vow to keep to their word despite their lack of water.
But remember this is a Christmas movie, so the trio sets out for New Jerusalem with Sheriff Sweet in hot pursuit. To add even more drama, New Jerusalem appears to be on the other side of an even more barren desert. Walking on foot, and with little very little water, the trio attempt to cross the desolate wasteland.
After the men make it across a salt flat, William finally passes away as a result of exhaustion and his gunshot wound. Shortly thereafter, Pete falls and breaks his leg. Unable to continue, Pete asks Robert for his gun to keep the coyotes away. As Robert and the baby walk away, a single gunshot is heard signifying Pete’s suicidal end.
Finally at the end of his strength, Robert nearly loses hope, but in his delirium the ghosts of his two friends appear and refuse to let him give up. Robert finally reaches New Jerusalem and enters a cantina where people are singing Christmas carols, because remember, this is a Christmas movie.
Sheriff Sweet finally catches up with Robert, and demands that Robert draw down on him. However, Robert collapses from exhaustion, and is arrested. The film then jumps ahead a couple of months to Robert’s trial. Robert is having breakfast with Sheriff Sweet and his wife. The Sweets have been taking care of little Robert while big Robert has been in jail. They ask Robert to give up custody of the baby since he is facing a long prison sentence. However, Robert refuses to do so because it would break the word that he gave to the infant’s mother.
When Robert does the same thing to the trial judge, he is viewed by the townspeople as a hero and is sentenced by the judge to the minimum of a year and a day. The film ends with Robert leaving to serve his abbreviated prison sentence and promises to return. And that is how a John Wayne Christmas tale should go.