Quick: Name your favorite John Wayne movies. "Hondo" didn't make the list, huh? Don't feel bad. It may be among the Duke's best films, but it's probably the least appreciated. Not that it didn't do well at the box office when Warner Bros. released it in 1953; but then it fell into some kind of legal black hole, and most people didn't get to see it again for decades. Now, Paramount own the rights to it and have issued it on a high-definition Blu-ray disc (and for the first time on video in its original widescreen aspect ratio). It's about time.
If the film reminds you of a typical John Ford-John Wayne collaboration, don't feel bad, either. "Hondo" is probably the best John Ford Western that John Ford never made. John Farrow ("Two Years Before the Mast," "The Big Clock," "John Paul Jones") directed it. Yet, like most Ford movies, it's got a similar characterization-over-action plot line; a similar conflicted protagonist; similar settings (no, not Monument Valley, but Utah and Mexico nonetheless); similar rugged desert landscapes that match the ruggedness of the characters; even Wayne himself in "Hondo" looks like a quintessential hero from every Ford Western before it, and especially from "The Searchers" a few years later. Heck, I've even read that the studio called in Ford to direct the final battle scene, so call it a "kinda" John Ford film.
Wayne said he attributed the film's popularity to the success of the movie "Shane" that preceded it the same year, and the similarities here are striking, too. Both films feature a main character who is a former gunfighter; both main characters admit their violent past but are trying to atone for it; both characters meet up with family living in the wilderness and attempt to help them; both films have a young son in them who comes to worship the hero; and in both films the character has a distinctly odd, distinctly masculine name, which just happens also to be the title of the movie. Hollywood always been creating these prodigious coincidences, where two studios will almost simultaneously develop parallel films. What are the odds?
Anyway, the screenwriter who wrote many of Wayne's scripts, James Edward Grant ("Flying Leathernecks," "Big Jim McLain," "The Alamo," "The Comancheros," "Donovan's Reef," etc.) adapted this one from a story by Louis L'Amour, who seemed to write every Western tale we have. And what he didn't write, Zane Grey did.
OK, so in this one Wayne plays a fellow named Hondo Lane, part Indian, former sharpshooter, part-time scout and dispatch rider for the U.S. Cavalry, living largely alone and apart from civilization, scruffy, ornery, yet, of course, tender and kind. He's killed men, and while he's not proud of it, he's also not running from it. He's just trying not to do it again, and when the opportunity arises to do some good in the world, he accepts it. Hondo believes that "truth is the measure of a man," and people ought to do what they want to do.
So, as in "The Searchers" from 1956, Wayne's character shows up at a ranch house in the desert; he's carrying a rifle and a saddlebag, this time needing a horse and a place to sleep. He's got to deliver a message to the territory's resident cavalry contingent about an impending Apache uprising in the area, but he's lost his horse along the way. The ranch he stumbles upon looks forlorn enough, its owner a married woman named Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page, a stage actress making her movie debut), with a young son, Johnny (Lee Aaker), supposedly six but looking about nine or ten. The woman's no-good husband has apparently abandoned them, and they're fending for themselves in the desert, deep in Apache territory.
The conflict arises when Hondo tells the lady that she and her son ought to leave the area because of the Indian uprising, but the stubborn lady won't do it. Yet it's not a common cowboys-and-Indians story, the movie sympathizing more with the Indians than with the white men of the area, who broke a treaty with them.
The Fifties were a time of change in the Western movie genre. Practically since the beginning of the movies, since the days of Broncho Billy Anderson and "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), the Western had been a staple of the industry, but it was not usually a very cerebral product. Generally, the Western was relegated to B-movie status, second on the bill, and primarily aimed at children. Then came movies like "Red River" (1948), "High Noon" (1952), "Shane" (1953), and "Hondo," and one could see the Western was growing up. Filmmakers were starting to target a more-mature age group, with stories and characters that carried more weight and more substance, emphasizing story and character over pure action. The so-called "psychological Western" came to the fore, and John Wayne helped lead the change.
Not that "Hondo" lacks action; there's plenty of that, too. It's just that characterization, dialogue, and personal relationships are more important to the plot than mere shooting, chasing, and fighting. "Hondo," like "Shane" and "High Noon" before it, is more about the protagonist, his personality, and his motivations than about mere action for action's sake.
Among the supporting cast are some names you might recognize besides Ms. Page: Ward Bond, Wayne's old sidekick in so many movies, plays a flamboyant army scout, Buffalo Baker; Michael Pate plays the Apache chief Vittorio; Leo Gordon plays Angie's low-down, runaway husband, Ed Lowe; Paul Fix plays the cavalry commander, Major Sherry; James Arness plays an army guy with a chip on his shoulder (Wayne liked Arness in his films because he was Wayne's size and bigger; a couple of years later when CBS asked Wayne to star in television's "Gunsmoke" and Wayne declined, he recommended Arness for the part); and Sam (reportedly a son of Lassie) plays Hondo's dog. The dog is as ornery and as loyal a cuss as Hondo, and a couple of decades later we would see Clint Eastwood mirror the dog bit in "The Outlaw Josey Wales," perhaps in tribute to "Hondo."
Two final notes: There's an intermission in the middle of the movie, strange when you consider it's only eighty-three minutes long. Maybe the filmmakers were trying add a little prestige to the production. And Warner Bros. filmed the movie in 3-D, a process enjoying a short-lived popularity at the time. Still, it almost never overdoes the 3-D gimmickry the way so many films then and now have done; in fact, the closing battle scene is rather effective in this regard.
"Hondo" is an intelligent yet thrilling film, long on talk but with sufficient derring-do to satisfy most fans of the Western genre. Moreover, in widescreen and high definition, it's beautiful to look at in the best Western tradition. And while it's almost irrelevant, "Hondo" also features one of Big John's best film roles.
The video engineers digitally restored the picture, so you won't find any egregious age marks, flecks, specks, lines, scratches, fades, and what have you. Paramount use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to reproduce the film in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1. The definition varies, however, from a bit soft to very sharp, and, oddly, the definition seems to improve in the final few scenes. Colors are bright in a wholly natural way, with fairly realistic skin tones, if sometimes a tad dark. Although you'll find a modicum of grain and noise in wide expanses of daylight sky, it is not distracting.
The English soundtrack comes in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby TrueHD mono, the multichannel mix handling the film's music rather well but tending to put dialogue in the background. The mono track is actually clearer, even if the multichannel widens the soundstage. In any case, there is little-to-no rear-channel activity in the 5.1 and a limited frequency and dynamic response in both.
Here, you'll find a small but impressive assortment of extras, well worth investigating. First, there's an audio commentary by film critic Leonard Maltin, Western historian Frank Thompson, and actor Lee Aaker. Next is a three-part documentary, "The Making of Hondo," totaling forty-three minutes, hosted by Maltin and featuring comments by some of the film's surviving actors and such. After that is a brief, 1994 interview with one of Wayne's sons, Michael Wayne, who discusses Wayne's collection of films and memorabilia in "From the Batjac Vaults." Then, there's a fifteen-minute featurette, "The Apache," on the history of the Native Americans, relating their history to the movie.
In addition, you'll get thirteen scene selections; bookmarks; a photo gallery; a widescreen theatrical trailer in high def; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes housed in a solid Blu-ray case (no Eco-case for a pleasant change), further enclosed in a handsomely embossed slipcover.
It's interesting to note that this Blu-ray edition of "Hondo" is probably the first time the public has seen the film restored to its original condition since its release to theaters in 1953. It's a good film, and despite its neglect over the years, it holds up well as a character study, as a story of interpersonal relationships, as a rousing yarn, and as a good-looking visual treat. As I say, it's one of Wayne's better efforts.