Few movie stars could be said to be more sui generis than John Wayne, whose performance style transcends mortal notions of "good" or "bad." Wayne's idiosyncratic vocal ranging and swagger may not be naturalistic, and they certainly didn't afford the actor a wide range, but somehow it's impossible not to buy into his carefully cultivated character type: the manly loner with a soft spot you can just tell is underneath that tough exterior. 1953's Hondo stands out as one of Wayne's best-remembered features, a smooth Western co-produced by Wayne and shot at the tail end of the '50s 3-D craze.
In 1870, cavalry rider Hondo Lane (Wayne) finds Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her six-year-old son Johnny (Lee Aaker) living alone on a New Mexico ranch in Apache territory. After a bit of wary mutual sizing up, Hondo learns that Angie's husband has gone missing despite a promised return, and Angie learns that the lone gunman deserves her trust. Matters become more complicated as Hondo violates that trust with a lie of omission, but also insinuates himself with Johnny and Angie. Before long, the part-Indian Hondo becomes involved with Angie and responsible for fending off the Apaches, who are riled after a broken treaty.
Since the role of Hondo is all but tailor-made for Wayne (scripted by James Edward Grant from Louis L'Amour's story "The Gift of Cochise"), he fits it like a glove. Grant crafts plenty of plain-spoken saws for the star ("A long time ago, I made me a rule. I let people do what they want to do"), and several early scenes play out with a variety of Western business—making horsehoes, saddling a horse, sharpening an axe—that establish Hondo's (and Wayne's) ultra-competence as a man of the West. His social graces may need a bit of work: he teaches Johnny to swim by chucking him in the river, and his Indian nickname "Emberato" means "hot temper." But clearly he's a good man in a tight corner, swiftly earning the respect of Angie, Johnny, and even Apache chief Vittorio (Australian actor Michael Pate).
Hondo vocally expresses traditional gender roles of a man whose job it is to provide and protect and a woman whose job it is to keep house and stand back as the man makes the decisions. Though single mother Angie proves her strength, the film makes it plain that Johnny needs a father figure—and better Hondo than Vittorio—since the boy's own father turns out to be a disgrace to humanity, much less masculinity. Still, Hondo has a lesson to learn about no man being an island. He says of his sole, canine companion, "Sam's independent. He doesn't need anybody...It's a good way," but Hondo answers the call of family. Hondo also leans toward a modern political correctness, painting the Apache as wronged and essentially noble, though still a threat (Hondo concludes of the conquest of Indian tribes, "End of a way of life. Too bad. It's a good way").
Even in 2-D, a few shots intended for 3-D are unmistakeable—a knife fight, a protruding rifle butt, arrows zinging toward the frame—but there's enough to please the eye in the Mexican scenery. The supporting performances strike the right notes: Page earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and crusty Wayne stock company player Ward Bond stands out in a supporting cast that also includes stalwart turns from Leo Gordon, James Arness, and Rodolfo Acosta. The sturdy work of director John Farrow (Around the World in Eighty Days) gets an uncredited assist from regular Wayne collaborator John Ford (The Searchers), who shot Hondo's climactic cowboys-and-Indians action sequence.
Hondo gets its Blu-ray debut from Paramount in a well-appointed special edition (not in 3-D, it should be noted). Grain can be a bit intrusive in the hi-def picture, but detail and textures tend to be excellent, yielding a substantial improvement over standard-def DVD. Color is rich, and I noticed no wavering of tone: in fact, the image stays very stable, no wobbling of the frame and only occasional softer shots no doubt endemic to the original photography. Though the results are variable, I'm convinced Paramount has done its best in the sound department, as well, providing the option of a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix or a Dolby TrueHD Mono track. The second is preferable both from a clarity standpoint and in terms of faithfulness to the material: the surround mix isn't really immersive, and dialogue gets a bit muddy. The audio generally hasn't aged well—the music sounds a bit harsh and tinny—but one suspects it'll never sound better than this.
Bonus features add plenty of value, beginning with a useful "Intro by Leonard Maltin" (2:33, SD) and a screen-specific commentary by Maltin, western historian Frank Thompson and actor Lee Aaker. Curiously, they seem to get the facts wrong when it comes to the film's 3-D release, which they describe as being much more limited than it actually was, but otherwise the track is engaging and interesting when it comes to the film's background and Aaker's recollections.
Hosted by Maltin and illustrated with film clips and archival photographs, "The Making of Hondo" (43:22 with "Play All" option) comprises "The Making of Hondo" (19:50, SD) with author & film historian Frank Thompson, Michael Pate, Lee Aaker, and 3D film historian Ray Zone; "Profile: James Edward Grant" (12:35, SD) with James Edward Grant's son Colin Grant, and "The John Wayne Stock Company: Ward Bond" (9:35, SD).
"From the Batjac Vaults" (2:29, SD) finds Leonard Maltin interviewing Michael Wayne on Entertainment Tonight (1994) as they examine the contents of the Batjac vaults (including film elements and costume pieces from Hondo).
"The Apache" (14:51, SD) allows Dody Fugate of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture to provide some cultural context for the film, and a Photo Gallery and "Theatrical Trailer" (2:51, HD) round out the disc.
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