Anyone remotely familiar with the western genre will immediately associate Hondo, the 1953 western starring John Wayne and Geraldine Page, with George Steven’s Oscar-winning Shane; Wayne himself pointed out as much. At least for the first 10 minutes or so, the two films could pass for doubles, as a rugged frontiersman cautiously approaches, and is accepted by, an isolated settler family. But whereas Shane produces a tenuous balance between hero and martyr tales, with no small degree of Biblical overtones, Hondo lacks the distinguished officialdom that might set it apart from the wider, more general pool of 85-minute westerns Hollywood was churning out at the time. Hondo is a mash of the usual tropes, a whirlwind of Native American war paint, cavalry stripes, a sawdust-saloon poker game, a few fistfights, plenty of gunfire, and every moral equation coming to a satisfactory balance by the time the credits roll.
A closer look does the film good. For starters, it furnishes additional proof, if necessary, that the rigidly anti-Native American reputation of classic Hollywood westerns, propagated by many strata of received wisdom, up to and including “film studies” departments all over creation, is clamorously overstated. Although Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid, appearing 20 years later, tells a similar, much meaner, much bloodier, and far less sanitized variation on Hondo‘s basic outline (substitute Burt Lancaster for Ward Bond and Bruce Davison for Tom Irish), the film’s attitude regarding the armed conflict between white settlers and indigenous Apache tribes is anything but reductive.
It’s also the presence of certain, distinguished collaborators that makes Hondo much more of a footnote in movie history. Granted, John Farrow lacked the expressive chops of lower-profile pros like Budd Boetticher, Andre de Toth, or even Charles Marquis Warren, but his sure hand, combined with Wayne’s inestimable star power, lifts Hondo well above the general mill. Also, if your pictorial antennae start to tingle during the climactic Apache attack and wagon circling, you might be interested to know that, while Farrow was, at the time, obliged to start work on his next picture, the great John Ford directed those scenes, without credit.
Pulling her own weight, even against Wayne’s megawatt presence, is Page in her feature debut. Her presence in Hondo is one of the early harbingers of the impact of “New York theater” on Hollywood production. Sure, Marlon Brando had already arrived, two years earlier, but A Streetcar Named Desire was a full-fledged, all-cylinders-firing specimen of Hollywood art, whereas Hondo was, for lack of a better name, a dime-novel “oater.” Page, who would herself immortalize a few Tennessee Williams roles, was as responsible as Wayne, in her own way, for “classing up” Hondo, above and beyond its rudimentary ingredients.
Long before James Cameron dreamed up Avatar, 3D was once regarded by the Hollywood dream machine as the eighth wonder, though its effects were achieved using cumbersome, two-camera technology that eventually turned out to be more trouble, and cost, than in it was worth. Hondo, which was shot using the process, appeared when the 3D bloom was just beginning to fade, and has very few "stuff in the camera" trick shots associated with films like House of Wax or Gun Fury. Paramount's Blu-ray for Hondo preserves the bumpy, patchwork quality one expects from 2D conversions of 3D films, which itself is already a compromise of image quality for effect. Many shots are tack-sharp, but some have a clay-like texture, and depth is often considerably degraded. Paramount seems to have done all that they could, but you have to give this one a bit of a handicap. The Dolby 5.1 TrueHD track is satisfactory and evenly modulated.
Taken from the 2005 DVD, the supplements add up to a basic course of study in Hondo and John Wayne westerns. Go-to expert Leonard Maltin provides the introduction and leads the commentary track, and a making-of featurette has the movie's acting and production principals sharing fond memories. There's also a featurette examining James Edward Grant, who was one of Wayne's favorite screenwriters (Grant wrote a dozen movies for the star, including The Alamo and Donovan's Reef).
Put your feet up, open a beer, and enjoy Al Bundy's all-time favorite movie, presented in two dimensions by Paramount's well-appointed Blu-ray.