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A little earlier this year Paramount kicked off their Batjac DVD promotion with a disc of The High and the Mighty, an overblown but entertaining epic that spent years on the short list of hard-to-see John Wayne movies. Hondo is a much better picture and perhaps the best starring vehicle made by Wayne/Fellows, a partnership that developed into the Batjac Company; it presents Wayne in a role that fits him like a glove. Louis L'Amour's Hondo Lane is to Wayne what Mildred Pierce is to Joan Crawford -- most of the western characters The Duke played from here on out are a variation on the tough-minded, likeable Army scout Hondo.
Hondo has a lot in common with George Stevens' Shane in that both men ride in off the range to find a place in the heart of a lonely lady pioneer. L'Amour's Hondo doesn't have to carry the weight of legend ("Come back, Shane!"), nor is he charged with the Fordian task of building a new country or carving a garden out of the wilderness. He and his ragged dog Sam are just trying survive. Poised halfway between Apache culture and the inevitable encroachment of whites from the East, Hondo's an unusually tolerant and positive character.
Hondo is a terrific movie, and perhaps the perfect non- John Ford Wayne western -- although Ford did help out with the final battle scene when Wayne lost director John Farrow to a scheduling conflict. Although the picture has its share of action its strong suit are the sustained character scenes, given extra weight by the western detail and frontier flavor of author Lois L'Amour. Favorite Wayne writer James Edward Grant keeps the dialogue taut and to the point, and it's much less dated than a lot of his other work for The Duke.
The movie fits into three sections. The final act with its big Indian battle is little more than average, but the middle section's personal conflict between Hondo and Vittorio is basically very good. What sells everyone on the film is its lengthy first act, which consists of little more than the day or two that Hondo spends with Angie. It's obvious that Wayne's putting everything he has into the role, taking John Farrow's good direction and delivering a performance of a different kind than Hawks or Ford would elicit. Hondo doesn't just sling out lines like "I don't abide by quitters", he truly interacts with the people around him. The film even establishes Hondo in a uniquely believable relationship with Ward Bond's character, and Bond was in practically every Wayne picture made.
The praise for Wayne is sort of a set-up, because critics that compliment Hondo often act as if Geraldine Page is responsible for all of its good qualities. Sensitive stage actress Page was surely out of her element, yet made an exceptionally special match for Wayne. If Loretta Young or Maureen O'Hara had strutted out of the homestead shack the movie would have held no surprises. Wayne or someone in his organization used their brains during the casting and ended up with one of the movies' few credible little houses on the prairie.
Hondo was Geraldine Page's only (almost only) film for eight years, a one-time stab at feature work that earned her a Supporting Actress nomination right off the bat. Angie Lowe is endearing but not a ninny; the movie characterizes her neither as too weak for homestead life nor as some kind of superwoman. It's a traditional attitude but a realistic one - Angie, Hondo and even Vittorio see her as needing a man around - the work required to make ends meet on a wind-scow ranch are too much for a woman alone.
Angie has her own adjustment problems with the half-civilized Hondo. A believer in total independence, he doesn't own his dog Sam but has more of a partnership with him. Hondo (which means 'deep' in Spanish) has definite ideas about everything and isn't interested in other philosophies -- like deciding on the spur of the moment to toss little Johnny into the creek for a 'swimming lesson.' Hondo's Tarzan attitude to problems seems completely appropriate to the time and place. To the extent that Wayne personified those qualities and embodied them as an example for American males, they were much less successful. Us 50's kids had to put up with a thoughtless 'sink or swim' attitude from a great many male authority figures eager to make us tough little men.
Hondo keeps its themes well-balanced. Initially upset to learn that her guest is the killer Hondo Lane, Angie gets over it quickly, almost as quickly as she accepts the fact that he's plugged her husband. A chance at the right man is hard to come by out in the wild and Geraldine Page does wonders with the necessity for Angie to retain her female prerogatives, even when reality makes hard choices. The proof of this is when she states simply that she knows she's a homely woman. It's the first time we notice that, yes indeed, she isn't quite in Grace Kelly's league. If she were, the movie wouldn't even begin to work.
Hondo talks highly of the Apache and the movie definitely is sympathetic with them; this must be a slightly less hateful time than what's pictured in violent movies like Ulzana's Raid. Hondo understands and subscribes to Apache values, which gives Hondo a good cross-ethnic dialogue. Michael Pate's Vittorio is nurturing to young Johnny Lowe and gentle with Angie, but the movie knows that the Indian is on the way out. "It was a good way of life, but it's gone now," says Hondo, as the Apache are defeated in an exciting but generic shooting-gallery finale. Until it has to resolve the settlers vs. Injuns issue, Hondo is surpisingly thoughtful.
Interestingly, the battle doesn't 'win the West' for Angie Lowe and her little farm. It's onward to California and San Dimas for everybody now; little Johnny might end up graduating from Stanford.
Hondo's major graces are Wayne and the adorable Geraldine Page; this movie would make a terrific double bill with The Trip to Bountiful 32 years later. Lee Aaker ended up a kid star on TV's Rin Tin Tin series; I still have a Little Golden book based on that show. Bad guy Leo Gordon became a Roger Corman regular, and versatile Australian actor Michael Pate ended up playing Indians regularly (Major Dundee). Wayne's protègé James Arness was by this time being groomed for TV stardom on Gunsmoke.
James Edward's Grant wrote a number of reactionary scripts (Big Jim McClain) and Ward Bond was one of the unofficial brokers in the Hollywood blacklist, but Hondo avoids comparing the Indian Wars to our Cold War with the Commies. The closest it comes to that are a few lines of praise for the cavalry and Tom Irish's inexperienced lieutenant - the Cavalry behaved entirely nobly in the taking of the Southwest, take it from us.
Paramount and Batjac's Special Collector's Edition of Hondo looks terrific, with fine color and what appears to be a good digital scrubbing to get rid of digs and scratches seen on earlier transfers. The transfer comes complete with the film's mid-point Intermission title.Hondo was a two-projector 3-D movie mounted in halves on oversized reels for ordinary theaters -- the 3-D format was the main reason for its relatively short 83-minute running time.
Leonard Maltin handles both an introduction (which again plays even when not chosen) and a good full-length commentary, aided by historian Frank Thompson and child actor Lee Aaker. The key docu turns the making of the film into an interesting story, even though not much effort is spent on Geraldine Page. We do get ample time to contemplate the problems of shooting with the massive 3-D camera, which added greatly to production time. The narration tells us that Hondo came at the end of the 3-D cycle and the process ended up being mostly a waste, but they say that about almost all of the good 3-D pictures.
We also learn to appreciate the difficulty of working with horses in films. Michael Pate talks about Wayne running alongside his pony holding him in the saddle for some takes. When Pate mounts his horse in one shot, it only has a blanket, no saddle. But he definitely plants his foot on something to allow him to climb up!
Batjac appears to be spreading a number of featurettes across several titles. James Edward Grant gets the laudatory nod here, although the only great thing they say about him is that he was Wayne's pal and knew how to write dialogue Wayne liked. Ward Bond also gets a thorough tribute that understandably doesn't address his ugly role during the blacklist years. All of the docus are covered with relevant licensed film clips, even when they come from other studios, a classy touch.
Showing great taste and judgment is an extra called The Apache in which a well-spoken Native American hostess (possibly Dody Fugate, the credit isn't specific) relates the history of the Apache from their battles with Mexico through the Indian Wars. It's not a PC whitewash but an honest look at a nation of savage fighters that survived by raiding both for life's necessities and to kill and terrorize the Anglo interlopers on their land. It's well produced and illustrated and backed by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
From the Batjac Vaults is an older Entertainment Tonight clip in which the late Michael Wayne takes Leonard Maltin into a Hondo film Storage room, that also has some key pieces of original Wayne wardrobe.
Teasers, trailers and a photo gallery round out the package. Viewers are given a choice of original mono or a remixed 5.1 track. Many 1953 3-D pictures originally released through Warners had three-channel stereophonic tracks, (even flat B&W pictures like Blowin' Wild), but I didn't hear anything specific about Hondo. The disc opens with a Batjac promo with spoiler clips that is difficult to skip over.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,