The powerful Hugo Friedhofer music hits the screen about the same time as the big block letters H-O-N-D-O, which originally receded into depth in 3-D presentations. When John Wayne launched into direct film production with his partner Robert Fellows, he made perhaps his best non- John Ford or Howard Hawks western. Hondo is perhaps the best starring vehicle made by the 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.
Although I think it has the edge in some respects, Hondo has a lot in common with George Stevens' Shane. Both heroes drift 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 to survive. Poised halfway between Apache culture and the inevitable encroachment of whites from the East, Hondo's an unusually tolerant and positive character.
The movie begins in a familiar situation, the outbreak of an Indian war: the Apaches are raiding again. Scout Hondo Lane (Wayne) borrows a horse from homesteader Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page), who is obviously alone with her son even though she claims that her husband will be back at any time. Lane returns to the fort and discovers that Ed Lowe (Leo Gordon) is neither a good man nor a trustworthy one; the Scout is obliged to kill the rancher in self-defense. Hondo makes his peace with Angie, only to find himself in the middle of a guerilla war being waged by the Apache chief Vittorio (Michael Pate). Vittorio has already adopted Angie's boy Johnny (Lee Aaker). He tentatively approves of Hondo as Angie's new man, because he's part Apache and doesn't tell lies.
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.
James Edward Grant's screenplay divides 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 few days 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 very purposeful, because critics complimentary of Hondo often act as if Geraldine Page is responsible for all of its good qualities. Sensitive stage actress Page was surely out of her natural 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 actress 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.
The half-civilized Hondo Lane poses adjustment problems for Angie. 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 '50s 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 presents it's pioneer woman as an individual that '50s women could probably relate to. A chance at the right man is hard to come by out in the wild. 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. Geraldine Page's Angie retains 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. The movie definitely is sympathetic toward a tribe that rarely was portrayed as anything but hostile. This must be a slightly less perilous time than what's pictured in movies like Robert Aldrich's savage Ulzana's Raid. Hondo understands and subscribes to Apache values, which lends the show 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 a busy but generic shooting-gallery finale. Until it has to resolve the settlers vs. Injuns issue, Hondo is surprisingly 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 of 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 more Indians (Major Dundee). Wayne's protègé James Arness was by this time already being groomed for TV stardom on Gunsmoke.
James Edwards Grant wrote a number of reactionary scripts (Big Jim McClain) and Ward Bond was one of the unofficial enforcers of 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 Blu-ray of Hondo is a glorious 2D transfer of this major 3D release of 1953. The picture takes a big step up from the already good-looking Special Collector's DVD edition of 2005. The1953 film's title blocks indicate that the wide screen 1:85 ratio is the correct one; the transfer here appears to be a bit taller at 1:78. Hondo was a two-projector 3-D movie mounted in halves on oversized reels for ordinary theaters -- the 3-D format may have been the main reason for its relatively short 83-minute running time. 1
The trimmings on the Blu-ray almost match the Special Collector's Edition right down to the animated menus. All that's missing from the 2005 disc are the Batjac promotional trailers, and they're not missed. 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 also learn to appreciate the difficulty of working with horses in films. Michael Pate talks about Wayne running alongside his pony, helping to hold him in the saddle for some takes. Pate's horse only has a blanket, no saddle. But he definitely plants his foot on something that allows him to climb up!
Writer James Edward Grant is lauded in his own featurette, although the only great thing said 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 sidesteps 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 carrying out violent raids, 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 film storage room, that also has some key pieces of original Wayne wardrobe from Hondo.
Although I'm not a 3-D home video enthusiast I sympathize with 3-D capable fans who feel burned that a 3-D Hondo wasn't offered for sale. I know of one studio still prepping a home video release of a vintage title, but other stalled projects indicate that no renaissance of glorious '50s 3-D shows is in the works. I missed but was told about a full 3-D restoration performed on Hondo three or four years ago, for one of the new digital 3-D projection systems. Those that have seen it have praised it highly. Frankly, I think that Hondo would clean up as a special event screening item in the country's many 3-D theaters. In my opinion Kiss Me Kate, Dial M for Murder, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space and House of Wax, if presented in one of the terrific new digital 3-D systems, would all fetch big-time audiences looking for quality 3-D thrills from the past.
Paramount's disc extras were written before the current 3-D craze. The making-of featurette gives us ample time to contemplate the problems of shooting with the massive 3-D camera, which added greatly to production time. The somewhat biased narration tells us that Hondo came at the end of the '50s stereoscopic cycle and dismisses the process as a waste! Authority Bob Furmanek assures us that Hondo was a big success in 3-D, and was screened that way in wide distribution across the country.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hondo Blu-ray rates:
1. Film format and 3D authority Bob Furmanek has a new website up, 3-D Film Archive. The site features a special 3-D Film Archive Hondo page, that sets the record straight about the film's release history, as well as its correct Aspect Ratio.
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T'was Ever Thus.