Monday, June 4, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Hondo" 1953)

"Hondo" isn't one of John Wayne's best Westerns, but it diverges in a few notable ways from the rest of his six-shooter work. In 1953 Wayne had the sort of clout that he could hand-pick his projects and directors, and this film was made through his own production company.

"Hondo" underwent a frame-by-frame restoration a few years ago, and is being released on Blu-ray tomorrow, June 5, in its first-ever widescreen presentation on video. Click the link below to find out more -- it also comes with a nice collection of extras.

Wayne & Co. found a short story by a then largely unknown Western writer, Louis L'Amour, and turned it into a screenplay stamped with Wayne's signature laconic style. James Edward Grant, a Wayne favorite, handled the script, a lean, atmospheric exercise coming in at a mere 84 minutes.

They used 3-D technology to film it, with some difficulty, and the film did relatively well at the box office. Interestingly, L'Amour penned a novelization of the movie that became a best seller, and did much to boost his career writing novels. Certainly, Hollywood took notice of him, with dozens of subsequent adaptations of his work.

But the most consequential thing about "Hondo" to me is that it's essentially a romantic drama that wears the dusty, fringed clothes of a Western. There are plenty of gunfights and chases -- using the all-too-popular 3-D technique of having stuff fly at the camera. But the heart of the story is about love and loyalty.

Geraldine Page, a bona fide Broadway star who used this movie to segue into a very successful film career, plays a prairie wife who falls in love with Honda Lane, a prototypical Wayne protagonist in many respects -- a hard, lonely man of action who lives by his own stubbornly independent credo.

Hondo's intro is pure Wayne myth-making. He stumbles in out of the desert, parched and horseless, bearing only a Winchester rifle, pistol, ammo belt and scruffy mongrel named Sam in tow. Sam is his companion but not his servant, and does what he likes, which is how  Hondo prefers it. His motto is to let other people do what they want to do, even if he knows it to be foolish or wrong, as this is the same courtesy he expects others to extend to himself.

Mrs. Lowe -- her name is credited as Angie, though I don't believe we ever hear her called that -- is a stubborn ranch wife, overseeing her rambunctious 6-year-old Johnny (Lee Aker). She repeatedly insists to Hondo that her husband is rounding up cattle and shortly to return, but they both know this to be a lie.

This have a confrontation where they make their feelings for each other plain. It includes Lowe making the extraordinary statement (for a Hollywood film in 1953) that she knows she's a homely woman. Hondo does not refuse this point, only stating that her inner qualities of steadfastness make her more appealing than any superficial traits.

Page is not of course anything in the same galaxy as homely, but director John Farrow (who won an Oscar for his screenplay of "Around the World in 80 Days") deliberately shoots her in a way to play up a dowdy sort of plainness.

Page, an early devotee of Method acting, does a yeoman's job with her part, which as written isn't terribly sophisticated. Her reactions and off-kilter line readings give her performance a showy sort of distinctiveness. It isn't a particularly authentic portrayal of  a 19th century ranch wife, but it does stand out from the drab sort womenfolk that generally populate these sorts of movies. Page received the first of eight Academy Award nominations for her turn.

(I should also note that L'Amour also received a nomination for best motion picture story, but L'Amour and the film's producers asked that it be withdrawn since it was based on a story that first appeared in a magazine, and the Academy complied. I'm not sure if there's any other occurrence like that in Oscar history.)

Frequent Wayne sidekick Ward Bond is around, playing a cantankerous ally named Buffalo Baker. James Arness, the future "Gunsmoke" star, has a small role as a Hondo antagonist who later saves his life, and is given Hondo's prize rifle as a reward. They have a brief fistfight, which is noteworthy for the fact that the looming 6-foot-7-inch Arness was one of the few actors who could make the 6'4" Wayne seem less intimidating.

"Hondo" has also been praised for a relatively progressive view of American Indians. Vittorio, the Apache chief (played by an Australian, Michael Pate, alas), is certainly fierce and bloodthirsty. But he has good cause -- Hondo himself notes that it's the whites who broke the treaty, not the Indians. Vittorio tells Mrs. Lowe that all his sons were killed by white raiders, yet he spares her and Johnny because he deems the young boy a brave little warrior for defending his mother from them.

Hondo himself is part Indian, living among the Apache for five years, took a squaw, and openly admires their ideals -- especially their hatred of lying. In the film's last moments, after the Apache have been driven off from their attack on settlers and the cavalry, Hondo notes that it's an end of a way of life, and a good one at that.

3 stars out of four

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