Cattle rustlers Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro "Pete" Rocafuerte (Pedro Armendáriz), and William Kearney (Harry Carey, Jr.) rob a bank in the town of Welcome, Arizona, but William is shot in the shoulder and they have to flee into the desert, pursued by a posse led by Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), who shoots a hole in their water bag (that they do not notice until after all the water has leaked out). They eventually lose their horses in a desert sandstorm and end up walking. Desperate for water, they head for a water hole, which has, however, been destroyed by the misguided efforts of a bumbling tenderfoot, who then chased after his lifestock and did not return.
In a covered wagon left nearby lies the man's wife (Sheriff Sweet's niece), who is about to give birth. With the help of the trio, she has a boy, whom she names Robert William Pedro after her benefactors. Before dying, she extracts a promise from them that they will take care of him. Moved, the three desperadoes try to keep their promise despite the acute lack of water.
William is certain a higher power guided them there and likens their situation to the Three Magi finding the baby Jesus in a manger. He convinces the others to head for the town of New Jerusalem, which lies across a wide expanse of desert. While crossing a salt flat, William dies; later, Pete falls and breaks his leg. He asks Robert to leave him his pistol, for "protection from coyotes." As Robert walks away, he hears a single gunshot.
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. He contemptuously tosses away the woman's Bible, then goes back for it and reads a passage telling of the appearance of a donkey and a colt. Just then, the animals actually show up. With their help, he finally reaches New Jerusalem and enters a cantina where people are singing Christmas carols (it being Christmas or Christmas Eve), and then collapses just as Sheriff Sweet catches up with him.
Robert is arrested, but because of his heroism and refusal to give up custody of his godson to the Sweets (whom he has now befriended), he is viewed by the townspeople as a hero even before the trial comes to its conclusion. In the end, he is sentenced to the minimum of a year and a day and, as he leaves to serve it with a promise to return, he is given a rousing farewell by the entire town.John Wayne as Robert Marmaduke Hightower
Harry Carey Jr. as William Kearney "The Abilene Kid"
Pedro Armendáriz as Pedro "Pete" Fuerte
Mildred Natwick as Dying Mother
Ward Bond as Sheriff Buck Sweet
Mae Marsh as Mrs. Sweet
Jane Darwell as Miss Florie
Guy Kibbee as Judge
Hank Worden as Deputy Curley
Dorothy Ford as Ruby Latham
Ben Johnson as Posse Man
Charles Halton as Oliver Latham
Jack Pennick as Luke
Fred Libby as Deputy
Michael Dugan as Posse Man #2
Francis Ford as Drunken Old-Timer at Bar
Richard Hageman as Saloon Pianist
Gertrude Astor as Townswoman
Ruth Clifford as Woman in Bar
Jack Curtis as Bartender
Harry Tenbrook as Bartender #2
Eva Novak as Townswoman
Amelia Yelda as Robert William Pedro Hightower (the baby boy)
This film was dedicated to John Ford's friend and early star, Harry Carey, who died in 1947. His son, Harry Carey, Jr., played one of the title roles. Tokyo Godfathers is partly based on this film.
It is believed that Pedro Armendariz dubbed his own voice into French for the film considering that he spoke French well enough to appear in the film Lucrèce Borgia (1953) as the leading man and in at least one other French film. However, none of the French voice actors are credited.
According to MGM records, the film earned $2,078,000 in the US and Canada and $763,000 overseas, resulting in a profit of $450,000.