This excellent, often overlooked film was part of a string of solid, gritty, adult-oriented Westerns that started to come out of Hollywood following WWII. Replacing the wild and wooly "shoot-'em-ups" --- generally with little in the way of plot complexities or character development --- that had been a staple of the genre for too long, Western films of the 1950s gave us a more serious, more introspective look at the people and events caught up in the gunplay and hard riding that still supplied plenty of excitement and action for viewers. SHANE, HIGH NOON, THE SEARCHERS, MAN OF THE WEST, THE GUNFIGHTER, BEND OF THE RIVER, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, etc., were part of this trend … including HONDO.
Whenever I pause to reflect back on my favorite movies, the first thing I have to do is approach it as having to make two lists --- one, that of my favorite John Wayne films; and then, secondly, a list of non-Duke films. Otherwise, the first twenty or so entries would all be John Wayne-ers. (RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO, THE SEARCHERS, THE QUIET MAN, and EL DORADO always the top five - with RED RIVER never sliding out of first, but the others shifting positions now and then, depending on my mood.)
And yet, upon re-viewing it just the other day, I realized that I would seldom even think of HONDO, let alone place it anywhere near the top of my list. Despite the fact I enjoy it immensely every time I sit down to watch it, for some reason it doesn't come readily to mind when contemplating the Duke's roster of films. What's more, thinking back on discussions I've had either in person or have engaged in with others via the 'net, I suspect I may not be alone in that. It's not that it doesn't deserve to hold a fairly high ranking – it does – but for some reason it often seems to get "lost in the shuffle".
The back story on the film may explain part of why that is.
For starters, it was one of the first features to be made by the new business venture, Wayne-Fellows Productions, that Duke formed with long-time friend Robert Fellows. (Shortly thereafter, when Fellows fell on hard financial times, Wayne bought out his half and renamed the company Batjac, which maintains many Wayne business interests yet today.) HONDO was set to be filmed in the new 3-D process that was becoming all the rage at that point, and was originally geared for Glenn Ford to play the lead role. Veteran director-screenwriter John Farrow would be at the helm of the picture.
When Ford and Farrow clashed just before shooting was scheduled to start, Ford dropped out and Wayne had to step in at the last minute and assume the starring role himself.
Production went slower than planned, partly due to the All-Media cameras (used to achieve the 3-D effect) frequently breaking down as a result of the dust and other harsh elements of the desert location; and partly due to the unfamiliarity of Farrow and his crew when it came to using the specialized equipment. Ultimately, Farrow avoided resorting to many of the "gimmicky" shots such as used in other 3-D movies (meant to enhance the "coming right at you" sensation considered a prerequisite to help "sell" the concept) and did most scenes in a more standard manner. In the end, this made little or no difference at the box office when the film went into release. In the first place, the whole 3-D craze was starting to peter out by then. Secondly, distributor Warner Brothers went to considerable effort promoting the film as utilizing the 3-D process for richer visual scope and perception rather than its "gimmick" aspect. That way, those who wanted 3-D got a little extra zip in a handful of scenes where knives and arrows seemed to fly off the screen at them, those who preferred a more traditional viewing experience weren't distracted by those few scenes.
When all was said and done, the movie was quite well received. It placed sixteenth at the box office that year, grossing over 4 million dollars, and Wayne's female co-star, Geraldine Page, was nominated for an Academy Award in the supporting actress category.
Also of note: When filming ran over schedule, Director Farrow had to leave before completion to fulfill another commitment that couldn't be delayed. As a favor to Duke, his long time friend and mentor, John Ford, stepped in to direct the final climactic scenes where a wagon train of settlers and an already battle-battered troop of soldiers are chased by a horde of Apaches. Although the transition between directors is mostly seamless, you can see some trademark Ford touches in the camerawork and the way he stages the frantic running battle against the vast sweep of the desert landscape.
Another bit of Ford influence can be found in the members of his famed "stock company" --- Wayne, Ward Bond, James Arness, Paul Fix --- who are present in the cast. Andrew McLaglen, son of Victor, who was also a Ford regular, was assistant director on the pic. He would go on to direct numerous TV shows (nearly a hundred episodes of Gunsmoke) and movies, mostly Westerns, several featuring Wayne (notably McLINTOCK and CHISUM).
After HONDO's theater run, it played a few times on TV (where I first saw it, about 1961 or so) but then the Batjac company, under the leadership of Wayne's son Michael, "vaulted" the film for over two decades, making it unavailable anywhere --- including on VHS during the big home video boom of the '70s and '80s. In 1991, it played as a TV "special", complete with much hoopla and a nation-wide program to make the 3-D glasses available to viewers (proceeds from these sales going to cancer research). Then the film was pulled from circulation again, until a second frame-by-frame restoration was completed and it finally got a full-scale release on DVD in 2005.
It was all that time being unavailable, I believe --- the final years of Wayne's life and for nearly a decade after his death, a period when Duke's always-prominent star status was evolving into near-iconic stature (for each of the 35 years since his death he has placed consistently in the Top 10 on polls of favorite male actors) --- that caused HONDO to slip largely from viewers' memory.
As for the film itself, it is a lean (with a running time of only 84 minutes), episodic tale of settlers, cavalry, and Apaches on the warpath. Plot elements that have been used over and over again. But the handling, in this case, makes all the difference. For one thing, the storyline (based on a short story and subsequent novelization by Louis L'Amour) presents the Indians respectfully and much more than just one-dimensional savages. They have been wronged and lied to, it is explained, and these are the reasons for the uprising that backgrounds the film's central chain of events. There is even a subplot involving the Apache chief Vittorio making a young white boy his blood brother due to the bravery the lad shows in attempting to protect his mother.
Other characters are multi-dimensional as well --- mainly Wayne as Hondo Lane, a former gunfighter and now cavalry dispatch rider; and Geraldine Page as Angie Lowe, a plain-featured, decent, hard-working pioneer wife and mother whose husband is a lout and a coward who leaves her and their son alone and unprotected on a remote ranch. The slowly building romance between Hondo and Mrs. Lowe --- made even more strained by the fact that Hondo was forced to kill Angie's husband when the latter attempted to ambush him --- is wonderfully layered and acted, especially by Miss Page, whose award nomination was surely justified.
(For what it's worth note: 20 years later, Wayne would again play a character simply called "Lane" opposite Ann Margaret's "Mrs. Lowe" in Burt Kennedy's THE TRAIN ROBBERS – a decent but decidedly less powerful film.)
When the action comes in HONDO --- and it is plentiful, what with chases on horseback, gunfights, a saloon brawl, a knife fight, and the aforementioned running battle at the end
--- it is staged every bit as expertly.
I highly recommend this film.
If you, like me, haven't seen it or thought about in a while --- or for sure if you've never seen it --- then I urge you to seek it out. If you like Westerns, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.