There’s nothing particularly surprising or unique about Hondo, except perhaps its reputation as the best John Ford movie John Ford never made (in fact, an uncredited Ford did direct a few sequences). Instead, it’s worth watching because it represents the quintessence of a genre—in this case, the Hollywood western—and provides all the necessary ingredients, at a high level of quality, to fulfill genre expectations without attempting to do anything new or different with them. If you like classic Westerns, it’s a good Saturday night watch, but not the sort of thing likely to impress your film-snob friends.
Hondo is based on the Louis L’Amour short story “The Gift of Cochise”, as adapted by James Edward Grant, John Wayne’s favorite screenwriter. The lead role is tailor-made for Wayne—Hondo Lane is a crack gunfighter who mysteriously arrives in an isolated settlement (a homestead in the Arizona desert, surrounded by Apaches), sets a few things to rights, and is precisely as tough as he needs to be while also observing the social niceties that would cause any schoolmarm to smile. He travels with a dog that’s as independent as he is, and which displays the same level of reserve unless you crowd him too much, because that’s what the mythical West was all about—space enough to be your own man (or dog) if you were self-sufficient enough to survive out there.
The homestead in question is run by Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page, a stage actress who brings real character to the role, and is handsome rather than conventionally beautiful in the Hollywood sense) in the absence of her no-good husband, who she unconvincingly tells Wayne will be returning any minute. She lives with her son Johnny (Lee Aaker), whose adorable blondness and general fixation on the big mysterious stranger had me expecting him to cry “Shane! Come back!” at some point. Their little homestead is threatened by the Apache—while Angie insists she is on good terms with them, Wayne advises her that they’re angry about broken promises from other white people, and besides, a lady can’t really run a homestead by herself, can she?
If she could survive without a man, then Hondo would be quite an innovative Western, but she can’t and it’s not. Instead, we get treated to displays of Angie’s incompetence with the manly arts, as well as her inability to carry out necessary manual tasks to keep the homestead running smoothly, so conventional gender roles are not threatened, no doubt pleasing the original 1953 audience for this film. She can raise a son, and nurse a man back to health, however, and keep a civilized household as well, so she’s a success in her own sphere of influence. Can you guess what’s likely to happen between her and the mysterious stranger?
On the plus side, the Apache are more humanized in Hondo than they are in many Westerns of the period. Their Chief, Vittorio (Michael Pate, in a performance you have to accept in the context of ‘50s Hollywood conventions about ethnicity) makes Johnny his blood brother and advises Angie to take an Apache husband—not out of spite or lust, but because he rightly observes that her man is gone, and she can’t work the homestead by herself. Some other Apache are less admirable, including a sneaky, cowardly fellow named Silva (played by the Mexican actor Rodolfo Acosta).
The cavalry also makes an appearance, and there’s a real bang-up fight and an even better Indian attack sequence near the end, the latter of a variety that only occurred on film and in Wild West shows. Like I said, this film has everyone a standard Western should have, and nothing genre-bending enough to upset the conventional viewer.
Hondo was shot in 3-D, but hardly anyone saw it that way, and it looks perfectly fine in 2-D. Only a few sequences were obviously staged for 3-D (is that a knife I see plunging towards me?), and they’re not long enough to disturb your enjoyment of the film. The cinematography by Robert Burks and Archie Stout is one of the best things about this film (of course—it’s a classic Western!), and the widescreen (1:85 : 1) ratio shows off the locations to great effect.
The extras package on Hondo is well above average. First of all, there’s a commentary track by Leonard Maltin, Lee Aaker, and Western historian Frank Thompson. There’s also a series of short features rather clumsily strung together with Maltin intros, but the features themselves are insightful, covering the making of the film, the careers of writer James Edward Grant and actor Ward Bond, Wayne’s production company Batjac, and a historical and cultural overview of the Apache. Finally, you get the theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery.