Hondo (1953), which is set to play June 13 - July 4 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their "3-D Summer" series, was John Wayne's first Western in three years. It was produced by his own Wayne/Fellows Productions (later named Batjac), founded just the year prior by Wayne and producer Robert Fellows. And James Edward Grant, who had already written several Wayne features and had a particular flair for writing classic John Wayne dialogue, penned the screenplay. All told, one gets the sense that everything about this exemplary return to the genre was a carefully conscious decision by the iconic American star.
Hondo is a definitive Western. Moreover, it's a definitive John Wayne Western.
When Wayne made Hondo, his masculine persona was already firmly established. After viewing the film at one point, Wayne supposedly declared, "I'll be damned if I'm not the stuff men are made of." Such a comment, good-natured to be sure, suggests just how keenly aware he was of the type of character he had been crafting and would continue to hone. This idea of a self-aware filmic identity is especially relevant when discussing Hondo. Here is Wayne basically showcasing all the traits he had come to signify, all in one picture. He said it was actually his favorite role, or at least the one where he most identified with his character, in this case that of Hondo Lane.
Under the opening credits, Wayne appears, seen from a distance, a lone figure walking with a dog by his side, a rifle in one hand, and his saddle in the other. Wayne's forceful presence is immediate. He waltzes straight ahead toward the camera, making quite the impression when viewing the film in 3-D, as the film was initially released, though his is a formidable figure in any dimension. And with this familiar screen presence comes all the generic and masculine connotations that go along with it.
Hondo, a scout and dispatch rider for the United States Calvary, happens upon the homestead of Angie Lowe, played by Geraldine Page in her first starring role (for which she would earn the first of eight Oscar nominations). Once she sees Hondo coming upon the house, she instinctively runs for a gun, a habitual reaction spurred on by the recent threat of hostile Apaches in the area. It's also an indication of her strong will, and it alludes to her newly found and recently essential independence. Her husband, Ed (Leo Gordon), has been gone for some time, and she has been left to fend for herself and their young son, Johnny (Lee Aaker). When Hondo arrives, Angie unconvincingly stumbles around excuses for her absent husband, stating that he is out rounding up some loose cattle; surely, he will return soon. Hondo easily sees through her lies and once she admits her deceit was due to a fear that this roamer might be dangerous, the trepidation has the effect of adding to his threatening yet arousing virility. Even if we know Hondo's intentions are honorable (this is one of Wayne's most honorable characters), Angie satisfactorily has it both ways, fearing and at the same time falling for the stranger.
Hondo is in need of a horse. With that, he'll be on his way. Respectful and grateful, however, he is eager to help around the house, noticing the obvious lack of a man. He sharpens the family's axe, gets the other horses in shape, and offers up practical tips and life lessons for Johnny—keep the edge of the axe in the wood so that it stays clean, for example.
Sam, Hondo's dog, plays an interestingly instructive role during this period at the Lowe residence. After Angie offers to give the animal some food, Hondo declines. The dog feeds himself, says Hondo, stressing and admiring the animal's self-reliance. When he wants food, he'll find a way to get it—and Hondo wants him to stay that way. Just like Hondo, who chooses to live by a solitary ideal, Sam shouldn't need anybody.
Such philosophical pronouncements are joined by an innately educational habit of Hondo's, whereby he eagerly imparts words of wisdom, especially on Johnny. The sequences with Hondo at the Lowe house are replete with moments of edifying, generally masculine, and frequently aggressive instruction. When Hondo specifically chooses a horse that puts up a fight, the implication is that nothing comes easy for Hondo, nothing should. Later in the film, Hondo assumes a fatherly role by showing Johnny how to fish and how to swim—the latter by being thrown into a river. And after it seems Sam might bite, Hondo tells Johnny twice not to pet the dog. Johnny ignores the orders and Sam predictably snaps at the boy's third attempt. This is fine for Hondo; consider it a lesson learned. His rule is to let people do what they want, as long as they're willing to accept the consequences. "A man ought to do what he thinks is best" is a common Hondo refrain, one that promotes liberty while still allowing for the resulting repercussions.
According to Hondo, Sam has been trained to smell Indians (trained by being beaten by an Indian to the point that Sam never forgets the scent of one). Ironically, Hondo himself is part Native American, and he too has a potent sense of smell. In what is apparently Hondo's best attempt at romantically complimenting a lady, he tells Angie she smells of freshly baked bread, cooked pork, and soap; she smells "all over like a woman." Food and clothing, cooking and cleaning, such are the standards of womanhood in Hondo, just as they so often were in most of this era’s Westerns. Later, Hondo becomes the more passionate wordsmith as he waxes poetically about language and its inadequacy at capturing the natural beauty of the landscape and the transcendent moments that somewhat surprisingly have marked his life.
Hondo is confident that Ed is dead, for he knows how violent the Apaches have recently been, and so with no guilt about coming on a little strong, and despite his declared desire for sovereignty, Hondo comfortably steps into a spousal as well as a paternalistic position. Once the romantic attraction between he and Angie is established, even if it's not explicitly acted upon yet, director John Farrow fills up the duration of these opening sequences by simply giving Wayne a good opportunity to do stuff: shoe horses, chop firewood—man stuff.
As with many archetypal Westerns, there is in Hondo mention of one being "civilized." The film, and Hondo as a character, draws attention to the contrast between the wilderness and civilization, one of the key dichotomies that characterize a Western. When Angie says she should have known he was a gentleman, he bristles at the word and the insinuation. But she is not so comfortable at first. Seeing his full name engraved on his rifle, she recalls his reputation—he's a gunman; that is, he corrects her without denying anything, he carries a gun—and he has killed men in the past. Still, Hondo has lived a somewhat domesticated life. He has a home in California not unlike the Lowe spread, and for five years he lived with Apaches, even marrying a squaw who later passed away. In this, and in his oscillation between fatherly/spousal guidance and ardent autonomy, Hondo embodies the generic contrast.
Angie's reticence never once suggests she will not ultimately end up with Hondo. It's all part of a flirtatious back and forth with just the requisite amount of tantalizing mixed signals. Angie, more so than Hondo, is indeed a complex and multidimensional figure. She's feeble yet determined, with a fair share of chutzpah waiting to get out, along with a barely quelled sexual desire: biting her lips, sideways glances, coy smiles. Geraldine Page's facial expressions are extraordinarily varied, subtle, and significant. While she may have been a gifted stage actress prior to Hondo, a face like hers, perhaps unconventional by the Hollywood norm (and even Hondo tells her, "being pretty isn't much"), was nevertheless made for cinema's big screen.
Despite this early courtship, Hondo still has a job to do, so eventually he rides off to a nearby post and reports on the state of the Apache situation. When Hondo encounters an antagonistic man back at the post, the aggressor is, of course, the long lost Ed. As our introduction to Angie's wandering husband and Johnny's neglectful father is in this most unflattering of lights, our allegiance is firmly set, if it wasn't already. Ed is prone to pick fights and on top of everything else, he notices that Hondo was riding one of his branded horses, thus assuming Hondo to be a horse thief. So when Hondo has to kill Ed in self-defense not long after, we're surprised if not wholly saddened. Callous though it may be, once back with Angie and Johnny, who know Ed is dead but not who killed him, Hondo eases on in. (It's funny the fluidity of our moral compass in these '50s Westerns; see Anthony Mann's work during the period for further examples.)
When Hondo is away at the post, the Apache chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) confronts Angie about her land and the lack of a male figure. During one such encounter, we see that Johnny has some fight in him too, the proof being when he shoots at one of the Indians. Vittorio admires the gesture, done in order to protect his mother even if it means risking his own life, and the chief subsequently welcomes the boy as one of their own. Vittorio is generally decent with Johnny and is enthusiastic to fill the void left by an absent father, something that poignantly points to similar concerns of the white man and Native American alike. The chief even brings along some options for Angie, arranging a dating talent show of sorts. However unconventional the display of potential suitors is by her standards, it's an earnest gesture from Vittorio.
Hondo's complex and sympathetic depiction of Native Americans is one of its most laudable attributes, and is something that by 1953 was becoming a somewhat common theme in the Western film. With few Indians seen in a respectable light prior to the 1950s, this decade saw several Westerns seeking to rectify the oversight. This includes films like Anthony Mann’s Devil's Doorway and Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow, both from 1950, and Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow, from 1957. Hondo ranks among these so-called "pro-Indian" films in not only the depiction of the Apaches but in Hondo's voiced sentiments.
Hondo makes no bones about the deceit of the white man, openly acknowledging that it were his people who lied about the treaty and thus instigated the current conflict with the Apaches. He is also quick to defend Vittorio against accusations of cowardice and is adamant about respectfully keeping his word to the chief. There's also the understated fact that Hondo had an Indian wife and Vittorio sets up Angie for an Indian husband, the notion of a mixed marriage perfectly natural for the film. Like Delmer Daves would do in his 1950 feature, director John Farrow likewise has the Native Americans making a powerful and significant entrance. As Angie is outside going about her business, dozens surround her before she knows it. The stealthy men emerge out of the landscape (as they did often in Broken Arrow), stressing their assimilation into the surroundings and the suggestion that they are unified with the environment in a way the white man isn't.
Nevertheless, as it does in other respects, by its conclusion Hondo manages to have it both ways, in this case concerning the Native Americans. The picture ends with a rather typical battle sequence, though an elaborate and action-packed one to be sure (stunt work in the film, particularly on horseback, is extraordinary). With encircled wagons fending off the onslaught of Native Americans, it's something Western-goers have seen many, many times, with the "good guys" and the "bad guys" assuming their standard parts. But after the secure white victory, and with the consequential step toward the end of the Apaches as a way of life, Hondo laments, "Too bad. It was a good way."
While its take on these Native American issues is rather respectful, Hondo's views on masculinity and femininity remain traditional and typical for its time, if now certainly clichéd and antiquated. In the aforementioned instruction offered up by Hondo toward Johnny, as well as in Hondo's statements when speaking with Angie, Hondo becomes strikingly didactic in its blatant declarations of what it takes to be a man. Self-sufficiency is crucial, but a man doesn't exactly mind a woman cooking for him and toiling around the house. Though he is reluctant to divulge to Angie the nature of Ed's death, Hondo continually reaffirms that honesty is a vital masculine trait. Man to man, Hondo holds nothing back, telling a troublemaker wise to his role in Ed's demise flatly, "I don't like you." Truth, says Hondo, is "the measure of a man." But not so for women, according to Angie. "A man can afford to have noble sentiments and poses," she states. "But a woman only has the man she marries. That's her truth. And if he's no good, that's still her truth."
There is also the sheer sturdy physicality one associates with Wayne and his ubermasculine characters. In Hondo, he is given ample screen time to exert his physical strength and endurance, standing up to being burnt and stabbed, for example, or easily dominating in a fist fight.
Adapted from the Louis L'Amour story, "The Gift of Cochise," which was published in Collier's magazine in 1952, Grant's screenplay has discourse perfectly suited to John Wayne. And as is clear in films such as Angel and the Badman (1947), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Flying Leathernecks (1951), and, later, McLintock! (1963), nobody wrote John Wayne dialogue better than Grant. Concurrently, nobody spoke this type of dialogue like John Wayne. Grant's screenplay enables Hondo to turn a phrase in the most practically no-nonsense manner. Upon learning of Vittorio's death, Hondo placates Angie by noting, "Everybody gets dead. It was his turn." Or, when Wayne is opposite friend and frequent costar Ward Bond, Grant composes comic banter between the two pals, as when Hondo asks Bond's character, Buffalo Baker, if he has a last name. "Well, of course I got a last name, what do you think I am?" "I know what you are," retorts Hondo, "but there's a lady present."
Of course, one fascinating feature of Hondo is that it was shot in 3-D. While it's probably the most famous 3-D Western, it was by no means the only one, though it undeniably approaches the format in some unique ways. On the one hand, there is the requisite things-coming-at-the-screen dynamic, in this case spears, arrows, and John Wayne's fist at one point. Just the start of the film points to such an exploitative use of the form, as a character on horseback gallops right into the camera just as John Wayne's credit bursts from the screening, which is then followed by the title of the film itself, the script in staggered lettering adding to the sense of depth. But there are also more subtle uses, with Farrow maintaining a largely restrained use of 3-D gimmickry as the film progresses. At-the-screen jabs during a knife fight are among the most overt—and rare—examples of self-conscious 3-D design, but Farrow generally favors instead an approach that accentuates the depth of a shot, placing a few items in the foreground, obscuring some of the irrelevant background. Our focus is still on the characters and the usually center-stage action, but having these elements lingering on the edges of the frame gives some of the compositions a fuller sense of structural density. Even with intensely vivid close-ups protruding from the screen and shots with clearly intentional foreground business as the primary focal point, there's a competent fluctuation between the occasional 3-D flourish and the space of the Mexican landscape, Farrow never denying the vastness of the panoramic vistas in favor of visual trickery. However, as one character points and shoots his rifle right at the camera, Farrow does work in an allusion to the Western that arguably started it all, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, from 1903. (Curiously, Porter himself experimented with 3-D as early as 1915.)
Hondo, in any case, was released in late 1953, just as the initial 3-D fad was starting to wane. It played in 3-D for about a week and was released simultaneously in 2-D, which is how the film was and remains widely seen. Recently though, a renewed interest in 3-D films of decades past has resulted in certain venues showcasing Hondo in its rare 3-D presentation, such as the upcoming MoMA event and the 2013 Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, which treated audiences to just such a screening.
The cumbersome 3-D cameras in the brutal Mexican locations contributed to Hondo having a difficult and trying shoot, with some suggesting that the unwieldy technology (as well as Wayne's producing oversight) partly diminished Farrow's trademark virtuosity. As described by Scott Eyman in his superb John Wayne biography, the film was photographed in 3-D by what Warner Brothers called an "all media" camera, "a five-hundred-pound behemoth mounted on a special truck with an elevator platform that could rise thirty feet and could shoot film simultaneously in 2-D, 3-D, flat, or in the widescreen ratio of 1:85." Eyman quotes Wayne, who wrote Jack Warner, "We had a wonderful first day, if that monster got what we pointed at."
The other key technical feature of Hondo is its Warnercolor process. Perhaps surprisingly though, given the ways in which accentuated color heightens 3-D, Hondo has a generally muted palette. The most notable and vibrant color that infuses the screen are the primary colors of Wayne's scarf and similarly colored accessories, but little else stands out.
Unable to break a prior commitment, John Farrow was called back to Hollywood to start work on another film before the shooting of Hondo was complete. Subsequently, John Ford, who had showed up on location (as he was apt to do on Wayne's sets) and had been shooting some second unit footage, stepped in to direct the final few days and the film's concluding sequences.
As far as John Wayne is concerned, being as much about Wayne as it is starring him, Hondo captures the actor at an interesting point in his career. He had already starred in some of his best Western collaborations with Ford—Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950)—and he had given one of his finest performances in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948). But his Western characters, like the genre itself, were changing, and still ahead for Wayne were more complicated, and in many cases more noteworthy roles, in films like The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and True Grit (1969), the film that finally won him an Oscar. While Hondo may emphasize the type of characters Wayne often played, as should be clear from these varying titles, he was more than just an embodiment of masculine tropes. He was truly one of the cinema's greatest stars, an actor who fervently understood and reveled in his role in Hollywood, in American popular culture, and beyond.
In many ways, Hondo most obviously mirrors Shane, which was released the same year. Aside from being named after the lead male character, a character who seems to exemplify all facets of the Western hero, Shane similarly takes a self-conscious form. This was a complicated time for the Western, as a new generation of filmgoers were starting to have their attention diverted by youth pictures, horror and science fiction movies, and big budget spectacles—1953 alone saw the release of The Wild One, The War of the Worlds, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, House of Wax, and The Robe, the first CinemaScope movie, a process that certainly stole audience interest from 3-D. There was much being done in Hollywood to make the Western seem old fashioned, and many Westerns, like Hondo and Shane, were looking back at the state of the genre, evaluating its cinematic status and emerging as a checklist of stalwart, and occasionally upended, conventions.
Hondo has everything one expects from a Western, and while this may also paradoxically be its principal downfall—it sometimes feels a little too mannered and intentionally packed with generic staples—its earnestness comes across as an ultimately effective highlight reel and as an explicit vehicle for Wayne's on-screen persona. In other words, Hondo may not be the greatest Western, but it is a great example of a Western.