Paramount // 1953 // 83 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // November 29th, 2005
"You baked today. I can smell fresh bread on you. Sometime today you cooked with salt pork, smell that on you too. You smell all over like soap, you took a bath. And on top of that, you smell like a woman. I could find you in the dark Mrs. Lowe, and I'm only part Indian."
As part of the continuing effort to release films from the John Wayne production company Batjac onto DVD, the western films done for the company have started to trickle out for consumption. So does John Wayne + western film = another solid work from the icon?
Based on a story by Louis L'Amour, Hondo Lane (Wayne) stumbles across Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page, The Trip To Bountiful) and her son Johnny (Lee Aaker, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin) who are homesteading in the middle of hostile Apache territory. He doesn't intend to stay on the ranch long, but when he finds out that Angie's husband won't be coming back soon, and hasn't been around in awhile, he decides to help Angie with some chores on the farm. Complicating things is the appearance of the Apache chief Vittorio (Michael Pate, Major Dundee), who is engaging in battles with the Army, and bitter because an agreed treaty was not honored by the white man. Hondo has a delicate balancing act with Angie, his thoughts for the Indians he lived with and the friends he's made that inhabit an Army outpost.
The elements for a good film were in place as Hondo got ready to shoot. Wayne had a Louis L'Amour idea to work with, and writer James Edward Grant, who helped write dialogue for such Wayne projects as Flying Leathernecks and Sands of Iwo Jima, was behind the script. Actors from the "John Wayne Stock Company" like friends Ward Bond (The Quiet Man, Gone With the Wind), James Arness (Island in the Sky, Gunsmoke) and Paul Fix (The High and the Mighty, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). The unknown of the bunch seemed to be Page, who was an established Broadway actress yet this was her first starring role in Hondo.
As it turned out, Page did an outstanding job and was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Wayne works well with her in the film, and the film seems to possess some small romantic qualities, even though it has the usual Western symbols in it. But what also makes it memorable is that it bucks what was largely a repetitive trend in how Hollywood treated Indians. Vittorio is perceived as a bloodthirsty chief, but in the first meeting he has with Angie and Johnny, he takes a quick liking to the boy, and decides to protect him and his mother from any possible harm.
Wayne plays Hondo as a mix of necessary toughness combined with a somewhat spiritual outlook on things (presumably because of the time he spent living with the Apache). He won't hesitate to use force or be tough if he has to. There's a scene at the outpost where a man threatens to shoot Hondo's dog for blocking a doorway, but Hondo's words and actions show the man he isn't afraid to kill him if his dog is injured, and after the situation is defused, Wayne has the dog move anyway. Wayne knows the dog's actions were wrong, but won't let anyone disrespect him for it. With Angie, he finds things worth living for and protecting again, despite a past where he lost a wife. It is a nice mix of the usual rough Wayne exterior combined with some tenderness.
In Paramount's continuing efforts to make these new John Wayne DVDs, a healthy dose of Leonard Maltin is included on the supplemental material on the disc, similar to Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty. So Maltin, Aaker, noted western film historian Frank Thompson combine forces for a commentary that doesn't include too much new information. Maltin and Thompson are recorded together, and Maltin leads Thompson into a good deal of production stories, along with some recollections of the era, but overall, this didn't say as much as other commentaries on Wayne DVDs have. There is a look at the making of the film featuring insights from the living cast members on the production and the relationship between Wayne, Bond and Page, along with the historical value of the 3-D aspect of the film. Following this are biographical looks at Grant and Bond, the actor who appeared in the most number of films in the American Film Institute's Top 100, and was also a close friend of Wayne for decades. There's an interesting look at the Apaches which explains the historical context of the tribe in the film, and some brief history on the tribe itself. There's even a trailer to go along with the still gallery.
Previous Batjac films had far too much Leonard Maltin to go around, but Hondo has scaled back the exposure of the bowtied film critic in this release, which is nice. There's a part of me that wishes that some of the 3-D trickery could have been employed a little more in this film, but overall, there's not too much wrong with this release.
If you've not see a Wayne western before, or are fairly new to them, this may be the film for you. It's emotional, dramatic, action packed, and features a supporting cast that provides quality work and makes a good story even better. It's an enjoyable film.
Not guilty on all counts. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Introduction by Leonard Maltin
* Commentary with Leonard Maltin, historian Frank Thompson and Lee Aaker
* The Making of Hondo
* Profiles on Ward Bond, James Edward Grant and the Apache Tribe
* Production Stills
* Official DVD Site