Hondo (Blu-ray Review)18 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Stars John Wayne, Geraldine Page, Lee Aaker, Ward Bond, James Arness.
Any movie that inspired the nickname for my favorite NBA player ever (the Boston Celtics’ John “Hondo” Havlicek) is likely to make my purely personal grade — though, in fact, this early Batjac production (which spent many, many late 20th-century years unavailable for viewing) remains in cement as one of the best John Wayne Westerns not directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks. Though come to think, an unbilled Ford did direct Hondo’s concluding battle scene when the credited filmmaker (John Farrow) left to start a previous commitment, which must have been the Jean Simmons-Rory Calhoun nice-girl/prisoner romance A Bullet Is Waiting.
Hondo (Wayne) is an 1870 Army despatch rider who loses his horse and ventures onto the secluded ranch of a woman (Geraldine Page) and 6-year-old son (Lee Aaker) whose slug-of-a-husband/father has been away for a long time and is possibly even dead. Thus, the stranger becomes kind of a family protector in the mode of Alan Ladd in Shane, whose theatrical release had come about seven months earlier. Taken from a Louis L’Amour short story that got expanded into a novel around the same time as this movie, Hondo is the most famed and acclaimed 3D Western, though it was never an “in-your face” endeavor in the manner of, say, William Castle’s Fort Ti, where moviegoers in the audience had to duck flying objects. As it turns out, this Wayne-Robert Fellows production played far more 3D engagements at the time than has been thought — and far more than indicated on an otherwise excellent commentary, carried over from the 2005 DVD to this Blu-ray, by Leonard Maltin, Western historian Frank Thompson and Aaker. (A recent Indiewire column by Maltin links to a meaty piece on by Bob Furmanek and Jack Theakston that clears up the long misconception that all but a few of the film’s engagements were “flat”).
The bigger surprise to me is that Hondo was filmed not in 1.33 but a 1.85 aspect ratio, framing that Jack L. Warner mandated as standard for his studio by spring of 1953 (pretty early, given that Warner didn’t put a CinemaScope movie into production until A Star Is Born commenced shooting the following fall). This Blu-ray marks the first time Hondo has been available for the home market in its correct width – which does kind of beg the question, “Couldn’t you guys get it right the first time?” But OK, we’ll take it — and by the way, this new rendering is about as good as dreaded Warner Color is ever going to look — offering some hope for how the three James Dean features might come off when they eventually make their way to the format (not a bad idea, by the way).
Until he dropped the idea of professional romance around the mid-1960s, Wayne (leaving aside occasional exceptions like Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo or Elsa Martinelli in Hatari!) usually had two kinds of movie relationships. One would be with tempestuous types who gave as good as they got (Maureen O’Hara in several pictures, Ella Raines in Tall in the Saddle, Elizabeth Allen in Donovan’s Reef). The other would be with women who tried to domesticate him (Gail Russell in Angel and the Badman or Oscar-nominated Page here). Page’s character does what she can to shield her young son from “the elements” — which isn’t easy when surrogate father Hondo teaches the kid to swim by tossing him into a creek (a famous scene) or when Apache chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) takes Aaker under his wing — this one no bad alternative when the tribe is otherwise in the mood to slaughter settlers. Still, the movie — right up to Hondo/Wayne’s final articulated sentiment — is sympathetic to and respectful of Indians, even if typically cast Rodolfo Acosta turns out to be “Bad Medicine” as a hothead warrior.
A lot has been written about how newcomer Page, from the New York stage, felt like an outsider on the Mexico locations — and indeed it’s a stretch imagining her sitting around the set chatting with famously reactionary fellow player Ward Bond about Tennessee Williams. On screen, however, it’s all a seamless fit — and, of course, Bond, Paul Fix, Jim Arness, Chuck Roberson and so many others here felt as comfortable as hundred-degree shooting days would allow because they had all worked with Wayne previously (and would again). Hondo’s screenwriter James Edward Grant (subject of a Blu-ray featurette here) was Wayne’s personal favorite and had even directed Angel and the Badman — still one of the most pleasing of all Wayne vehicles. Director Farrow (Mia’s real-life father) was never much of a stylist — though Hondo and his version of The Big Clock are satisfying movies even by exacting standards, while Alias Nick Beal (which I just saw again for the first time in over 40 years) is a solid sleeper. Due partly to technical problems in their exhibition, a lot of early 3D movies were on the short side, and Hondo clocks in at just 84 minutes. This makes it about 35 minutes shorter than Shane, whose poetry to Hondo’s prose I still prefer. But the Wayne picture is structured so tightly and without fussiness that it’s not hard to see why some give it a nod of preference.