A Wayne-Fellows Production
Directed by John Farrow
Produced by Robert Fellows
Screenplay by James Edward Grant
Based on a story (“The Gift Of Cochise”) by Louis L’Amour
Photography: Robert Burks, ASC and Archie Stout, ASC
Editor: Ralph Dawson, ACE
Music: Emil Newman and Hugo Friedhofer
Technical Advisor: Major Philip Kieffer
CAST: John Wayne (Hondo Lane), Geraldine Page (Angie Lowe), Ward Bond (Buffalo Baker), Michael Pate (Vittorio), James Arness (Lennie), Rodolfo Acosta (Silva), Leo Gordon (Ed Lowe), Tom Irish (Lt. McKay), Lee Aaker (Johnny Lowe), Paul Fix (Major Sherry), Rayford Barnes.
Over the years, a number of things have kept Hondo from being recognized as the fine Western it is. First, there’s a tendency to discount all 50s 3-D films as slaves to a gimmick. Next, there’s the fact that it was released the same year as, and has a few similarities to, George Stevens’ Shane (1953) — which has taken its place as one of the genre’s giants. Then consider that Hondo sits among pictures like Rio Grande (1950), The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959) in John Wayne’s filmography — it’s easy to be overlooked in a crowd like that. Then, and probably the toughest of these hurdles to overcome, is the decade or so the picture was virtually impossible to see.
This absence was brought about by Wayne’s estate and included all the films produced by Wayne-Fellows and Batjac. (When Robert Fellows was bought out, the company was renamed Batjac, after the shipping line in 1949’s Wake Of The Red Witch.) The Batjac pictures resurfaced on DVD in 2005, with a very nice edition of Hondo being one of the highpoints.
Hondo began as a Louis L’Amour story, “The Gift Of Cochise,” which James Edward Grant, Wayne’s scriptwriter of choice, adapted for Wayne-Fellows. (It appeared in the July 5, 1952 issue of Collier’s.) John Farrow was signed to direct, and Glenn Ford was offered the lead. Ford didn’t want to work with Farrow after his experience on a previous Wayne-Fellows picture, Plunder Of The Sun (1953). Unwilling to fire the director, Wayne took another look at the script and decided to do it himself.
Wayne is Hondo Lane, a Cavalry dispatch rider who turns up at the small ranch of Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page), located in the middle of Apache territory. He’s on foot, with his dog, having lost his horse fighting the Apaches. She says her husband is away and will be back shortly. Seeing through her lie — her husband doesn’t seem to be coming back — he urges her and her son (Lee Aaker) to seek safety from the Apaches. She’s never had trouble with the Apache chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) before, and decides to stay. From there things get a bit more complicated, as Wayne ends up killing Page’s ne’er-do-well husband (Leo Gordon) and being captured and tortured by Vittorio. There’s an exciting wrap-up as Wayne helps the Cavalry lead a number of settlers out of Apache territory.
Grant’s script expanded the L’Amour short story considerably, and L’Amour then novelized the screenplay. Published to tie in the film’s opening, it was a bestseller — and is still in print today.
Wayne-Fellows was in a distribution deal with Warner Bros., who’d seen runaway success with House Of Wax (1953) in 3-D, so it soon came to pass that Hondo was to be shot in 3-D. It would be the first time Warner Bros. would use its new All-Media camera rig — and the first of Wayne-Fellow’s productions in color (WarnerColor).
All the Batjac pictures benefited from Duke’s working relationships with some of the best actors and technical people around. Behind the camera were cameraman Archie Stout and John Ford, who visited the location and ended up shooting a bit of second unit stuff. The cast included third-billed Ward Bond, Paul Fix in a character part, and James Arness — under contract to Wayne’s company and still a few years from being recommending by Duke for Gunsmoke.
One clear break from what, and who, we expect from a John Wayne Movie turned out to be his leading lady — Geraldine Page.
Paul Fix: “Duke’s agent, Charles Feldman, also represented Geraldine Page who was a successful actress on the New York stage. Robert Fellows offered her the part without testing her… Duke was dismayed when he first saw her. She had bad teeth, so the first thing Fellows did was send her to a dentist who worked on her for three days.”
Cast and crew arrived in Camargo, Mexico, with shooting to start June 11, 1953. Thanks to the technical difficulties of shooting 3-D on location, things got off to a rather slow start. Setups were few and far between.
Leo Gordon: “They had that great big camera that was the size of a small truck.”
Geraldine Page: “It was a very temperamental machine. So we had lots of time to sit under the broiling Mexican summer sun.”
Wayne and mogul Jack Warner had been communicating via telegram from the beginning, often with Wayne complaining about the delays and expense of working in 3-D. Jack Warner saw some dailies and wired on June 18 about more close-ups: “Director is not moving you and Geraldine close enough to camera. Everything seems to be too far away.”
Wayne replied two days later: “Farrow has done everything but play music to get camera in for close shots… cameraman is over cautious for fear front office will scream eyestrain. Will show cameraman your wire.”
The “cameraman” Wayne refers to is Archie Stout, a Batjac veteran who shared duties on Hondo with Robert Burks, who’d worked on House Of Wax and would go on to shoot some of Hitchcock’s finest films. But the 3-D cameras and frustrated DPs weren’t the only things troubling Wayne. He was in the middle of a divorce from his wife Chata. Their relationship was volatile, to say the least. Then there were his scenes with Page.
James Arness: “Acting with Geraldine Page was difficult for Duke, since their styles were completely different. Here was dynamic Wayne, who wanted to move things right along regardless of meaningless details, and a very intense costar who wanted to know the meaning of every scene she was in… as they got used to each other, things worked out fine.”
What’s more, the Mexican temperatures sometimes topped 120 degrees.
James Arness: “It was mid-summer, and blazing hot down there. We worked 14 hours a day in the sun… After each day’s shooting, we’d all race back to our run-down Mexican motel and hit the bar to quench our thirst. We ordered anything, just so the glass was full of ice. After a few day’s, everyone came down with Montezuma’s revenge… The problem was solved when we realized the water for the ice in our drinks was coming from a polluted river near the hotel.”
Lee Aaker: “We were in Mexico for three months doing it… most of all, I remember John Wayne as being very nice to me.”
After wrapping in early August, the picture was quickly edited and scored for a Thanksgiving premiere in Houston. Its wide release in January of 1954 was very successful. There’s been a lot of debate over the years about the picture’s 3-D engagements. Some claim it played mostly flat, but that’s not the case. Almost all of its first run was in 3-D.
Whether flat or in 3-D, Hondo is an excellent film — not a great one. Its smaller size turns out to be a large part of its appeal, and it seems to hint at the look and tone of The Searchers (1956).
Wayne’s performance is excellent. Despite his trouble working with Geraldine Page, their scenes together are very good, some of his best work. It’s easy to wish Wayne had called up Maureen O’Hara for Mrs. Lowe, but Page brings lot to the film. She was perfectly cast, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Ward Bond is terrific, making a big impression with relatively little screen time as Buffalo Baker, a grizzled old friend of Hondo’s. Leo Gordon is perfectly slimy as Ed Lowe — boy, am I glad when he gets shot. But acting honors have to go to Michael Pate as the Apache chief. He somehow manages to make Vittorio scary and sympathetic at the same time. Hondo is held up as an early example of Hollywood treating Native Americans and their culture with respect. It does it without preaching or sacrificing the action audiences came for. This is a cowboy movie that doesn’t need 3-D glasses to give you plenty of depth.
Paramount’s Blu-ray of Hondo is, in some ways, simply a high-definition version of their 2-D DVD from 2005. Both contain the same bonus material — an excellent collection of commentaries, documentaries, trailers, photos and more. (A couple of the documentaries didn’t make it over from DVD.) But the Blu-ray’s 1.75 ratio makes all the difference. This is clearly how this film was meant to be seen. It’s one of the nicest WarnerColor transfers I’ve seen, with its harsher contrast helping you feel the heat Wayne and company suffered through. Of course, there’s the typical jump in sharpness and detail that comes with Blu-ray.
Audio is clean with a nice range, and I much preferred the original mono to the 5.1 mix. (I have to say it’s been the audio, as much the video, that has really impressed me with the shift to Blu-ray.)
Hondo is an essential 50s Western, if for no reason other than Wayne made so few cowboy pictures during the decade. And for those wondering if Hondo’s worth the upgrade to Blu-ray, put on your old DVD. Look at all the dead space at the top and bottom. Yep, it’s worth it.
SOURCES: James Arness: An Autobiography; Duke, We’re Glad We Knew You; Duke: The Life And Image Of John Wayne; this fabulous article by Bob Furmanek and Jack Theakston; and more.
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