Pedro(Armendariz) turned out to be right. The 3 badmen should have stuck with their cattle rustling, and abandoned John Wayne's ambition to rob the bank in Welcome, AZ. Robbing the bank in broad daylight wasn't a good idea, and 'the kid'(Harry Carey, Jr.) was wounded as they made their getaway. Sheriff Sweet(Ward Bond) and aids chased them into the desert on a buckboard. Sweet hit their main water bag, leaving them with little water. When an aid complained that he hadn't hit the men, he quipped "I'm not paid to kill folks". He seemed unconcerned about giving up the chase because he was sure where they would head(the water tank for the train). For the rest of the film, we periodically switch back and forth between the 3(or less) desperados and Sweet with his posse, who initially wait at the several known water sources, then actively hunt them when they aren't found. Their status as desperados is magnified when Sweet visits Terrapin Tank to discover that the spring has been destroyed by dynamiting, and his niece and her husband aren't to be found, despite the presence of their covered wagon. He finds the discarded vest of one of the desperados, hence assumes that they are responsible for these additional crimes. Thus, when Sweet finally catches up with Wayne, on Christmas, several days later, in the New Jerusalem saloon, he immediately demands that he engage Sweet in a gun duel. Fortunately, Wayne is too weak to respond, and Sweet is shown the infant that Wayne has 'nursed' through his trials in the desert. Sweet, presumably after hearing Wayne's full story, takes an entirely different attitude toward him, beginning to treat him like a prodigal son.
This was John Ford's first color film, he generally preferring B&W. Not as stunning as the Monument Valley backdrops in his next color film: "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", but a welcomed plus. Filming locations include several spots in the Death Valley region, the Mohave Desert, and the Alabama Hills region of Owens Valley, with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada sometimes in the background. Their initial journey clearly was in the spectacular, if not very colorful, erosional badlands of Zabriskie Point, on the east side of Death Valley. Next, they were tested by an extended sand storm in Death Valley's sand dunes region. Later, they have to cross a large salt flats, presumably in Death Valley, before Wayne has to climb a high mountain range, then descend to New Jerusalem, his partners having died in the sweltering salt flats crossing(crazy to cross it by day!)
It's a challenge to try to correctly decipher all of the intended symbolism. I will guess that their trials in the desert represent the trials of Moses and the Israelites as they wandered the Sinai deserts, as punishment for their sins, before the chosen ones(only Wayne, in this case) were allowed to enter the 'land of milk and honey':New Jerusalem, in Wayne's case. The 3 desperados, of course, represent the traditional 3 magi(The bible doesn't say there were 3!) and the baby they deliver represents Christ(Thus, it must be male, although the actual infant clearly is female!). In being faced with the responsibility of delivering and caring for an infant in the wilderness, the 3 outlaws are, in a sense, reborn themselves, as caring fathers. They largely atone for their past sins by saving the babe's life.(No clue why the mother was so sure she would soon die, except it was in the script!). The big 'star' they saw probably was Venus, although the 'star 'that guided the biblical magi(which only they could see!) clearly was a divinely prescribed manifestation of God. The miraculous appearance of a donkey and her young to Wayne when he is about at the end of his strength, soon after reading about such in his deceased partner's bible, presumably is a device to cement his questionable faith in God.
One of Ford's key beliefs, manifested in some of his films, was that criminals are mostly molded by their unfortunate circumstances and experiences, rather than being an inborn trait, and thus are often reformable, given the right guidance and opportunities. This is clearly the main message of this film. History proves this is only sometimes the case.
Another key point, clearly expressed in this and certain films by other directors("The Return of Frank James", "The Last Wagon", "The Bend in the River") is that judges and juries should be flexible in their sentencing of wrong doers, taking into consideration their overall character and the positive things they have done. Thus, to me, the best part of the film is the last part, where Wayne's character is undergoing sentencing and he is arguing with the judge(Guy Kibbee, in his last film role) and Sheriff Sweet about the disposition of the infant. He even attracts some female admirers, who anticipate his return from his minimal prison sentence.
Despite all the highly improbable events and abundant sentimental corn, I think Harry Carey, Sr., to whom this film was dedicated, would be pleased. I was.
The western "Yellow Sky", also released in '48, has a similar theme , with a gang of bank robbers also taking refuge in the Death Valley salt flats.
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