Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Hondo review

Hondo (1953)
Dir. John Farrow
Starring: John Wayne, Geraldine Page, Michael Pate, Ward Bond

Hondo Lane (Wayne) befriends a woman (Page) and her son living near a band of warring Apaches.

Hondo was John Wayne’s return to the western genre after spending the previous three years making mostly war movies. He had read the Louis L’Amour short story The Gift of Cochise and quickly bought up the rights and planned on staring in the adaptation, and planned to film it in the then popular style of 3D. This led to a difficult production due to the cameras having a lot of problems due to the wind and sand from the Mexican locations and because the Farrow and director of photography Robert Burks had trouble learning to use the camera. But what is impressive about the film is that they used the 3D gimmick in a way that is very similar to how most modern films use 3D, by using the technology to make the scene or background more immersive to the viewer, with really only one scene really using the stereotypical technique of having things shoot toward the camera, which helps when watching it now in 2D.

John Wayne is great in the film, which makes sense when you learn that he had writer James Edward Grant tailor the film and the character to his strengths. It is also the prototype for the type of role that he would be playing in the back half of his career, laconic and traveled, and worn down. The film is a good performance, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role as well as he did. He also loaded the film up with his friends in smaller roles, so the film is full of secondary characters played by actors like Ward Bond that he had a natural chemistry with, which helps make the movie more enjoyable.

Geraldine Page is very good in the role of Angie Lowe. She was a method actor, and she didn’t have the typical Hollywood starlet look to her, but this brings a bit of realism to the role that adds to the movie. It’s of the opposite of Karen Steele in Westbound. In that film the woman that was tending to the farm by herself still had perfect hair and a model’s face. But in this film Page looks more like a real woman that has had to do a lot hard work by herself, and it adds to the character and how the audience responds to her. She gives the character a strong, yet still vulnerable quality that is very relatable, and you do easily understand why the character is doing what she does in the film. One of the best things about the movie is how it handles the relationship between Angie and Hondo. You see her taking an interest in him early on, despite her claims of being married and that her husband is still alive. The great scene where he talks about being able to smell her is pretty erotic, and I am sure it caused some eye brows to be raised at the time it was released. But the way the movie handles her husband and Hondo’s guilt about what happened to him works, and even though she hasn’t known Hondo for very long, she realizes that her husband wasn’t a very decent person.  She gained an Oscar nomination for her work in this film, and she deserved it. She won an Oscar on her eight nomination a year before she passed away, and even then she didn’t expect to win referring to herself as “a seven time Oscar loser”. But she is a very important part of why the film works.

The movie is impressive of how it handles the Apaches. The fifties were a huge step forward in terms of how Indians were presented in films. In the thirties and forties they were usually presented as an evil boogeymen or a faceless horde attacking the heroes. One of the first things that is said about the Apache in this movie is that the reason that they are on the warpath is because the white men lied to them. Throughout the film they are presented as an honorable group of people, but still as a theat. Michael Pate’s Vittorio is a noble character, and the other Apaches seem to be cut from the same cloth and just as honorable. I think that his portrayal of the character is great, and it feels like the start of a change in how Native Americans were presented on film. The character of Silva, who is played by Rodolfo Acosta, gets the second most to do of the Apaches, and he seems more violent but loyal to his tribe and their ways. He is probably the worst of the Indians, but the most outright villainous character is probably Angie’s husband Ed Lowe (Leo Gordon). The film has a heavy theme of independence and isolation versus responsibility. Hondo starts off isolated and alone, but as the story progresses he develops attachments to the characters he encounters and takes on the responsibility of protecting them. The opposite is shown in the character of Ed Lowe. At the beginning of the film he has long abandoned his wife and child. He entered a marriage of convenience with Angie for her family's property, had a child with her, and took off in pursuit of womanizing and gambling, and only took interest in his wife and ranch after he saw that Hondo had been there. His actions at the cavalry camp and during the aftermath of the indian attack show him to be a jealous and petty man, and even attempts to kill Hondo seconds after Hondo saved him from being killed by Indians. At least the Apaches have a code, Ed Lowe is a deadbeat dad and a jerk.

The action is pretty decent in the film, with the centerpiece in the middle involving a knife fight between Hondo and Silva that features a lot of the stabbing and thrusting towards the camera that was commonplace in 3D films of the fifties, and the scene isn’t bad and works well in 2D. The attack of the caravan by the Apaches at the end of the film is also very good, if a bit short. This scene doesn’t have things popping out at the camera and feels more like a traditional action scene, and the end of the fight involving Hondo on foot facing off again Silva on horseback is a great moment. According to stories about the production, Michael Farrow had to leave the production before it was completed due to a prior commitment, and an uncredited John Ford stepped in to direct the final scenes. The scenes have a slightly different feel to the rest of the movie, but that may actually be due to the quieter nature of the rest of the film. They still work though. There’s also a scene where Hondo (on horseback) descends the side of a butte that is very impressive to see.

One interesting thing about the film is that It was also featured on a couple of episodes of Married…With Children. It was a favorite film of Al Bundy and the 2 episodes involved him trying to watch the film while dealing with various distractions, and eventually telling his wife’s family that "Your lives are meaningless compared to Hondo!" It’s odd that the film was unavailable for so long, you would think that its short 84 minute run time would have made it ideal for filling a 2 hour block of television time, but it was apparently due to legal entanglements that kept it out of sight until a VHS release in the nineties.

Hondo is a great little film*. It is fun and with heart, and it has a kid that doesn’t really get annoying like a lot of child characters tend to. It’s rightfully thought of as a classic western film, and it should be seen by anyone interested in the genre.

*Little as in runtime. The movie packs a lot into its short 84 minute runtime. It could probably have been a little longer and expanded some of the secondary characters, but realty I would rather a movie be short and good rather than too long with some problems.

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