Featuring an Academy Award-winning supporting performance from legendary stage and film star Geraldine Page, as well as a drawlingly archetypical one from its iconic lead, the quintessential John Wayne western Hondo is currently available on Blu-ray from Paramount. One of the last Hollywood films to be shot using the two-color 3-D process that dominated the popular market during the 1950s, Hondo is a compact and briskly paced genre installment, marred only slightly by the ubiquitously regressive social attitudes characteristic of its period.
Wayne plays Hondo Lane, a part-Apache drifter who ventures into a partially settled New Mexico territory poised on the brink of violent confrontation between rural white farmers and local tribes of indigenous Apaches. Though the natives and settlers have existed together in peace for decades, recent violations of government treaties by callous white entrepreneurs have incited rage and resentment among Apache leaders, who have begun to take recourse by launching organized campaigns of violence against scattered bands of rural white civilians.
Encountering a strong willed and remotely located country woman (Page) and her six-year-old son, who are attempting to singlehandedly maintain a dilapidated farm after the desertion of her callous husband, Hondo’s stoically aloof exterior begins to degrade and give way to an increasingly complex protective bond with both mother and child. As the militancy and hostility of previously amiable local tribesman burgeons in the face of looming white encroachment, however, Hondo’s apolitical stance is tempered by personal interests, and he is forced to choose a definitive stance from which to intervene.
Hondo occurred during a period of marked transition in the American western genre, and though the movie occasionally flirts with the more introspective and ethically ambiguous qualities that would increasingly define such films, both the movie itself and Wayne’s character in particular are pretty straightforwardly classical in their presentation. The only unfortunate drawback of this approach is the film’s pervasive and mildly condescending racist attitudes, diluted as they may be by token apologetic overtones. Hondo was shot in the 1953, and in its defense, its racial depictions were relatively progressive for that time period. Nonetheless, Paramount perhaps realized they might be problematic to modern viewers, since among other features, the disc contains a sheepish short documentary detailing Apache culture and history.
Despite such chronological disparities, Hondo is extremely well scripted and choreographed, and its climactic action sequences are riveting despite their age. The movie was written by genre perennial James Edward Grant, whom Wayne identified during his lifetime not only as his favorite writer to work with, but also, tearily, as his best friend. The disc itself is admirably augmented with commentary and contextual short featurettes, hosted with enthusiastic reverence by film critic Leonard Maltin, including an especially touching one detailing the life and career of prolific character actor Ward Bond. Hondo is ultimately a very strong, if not particularly iconoclastic Hollywood western, and its measured and heartfelt approach, combined with its strong visual execution, qualify it as a particularly rewarding classical entry.