Superb 1953 Western
We’ve already looked at two fine Westerns from that epic year of 1953, both from MGM, Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur and John Sturges’s Escape from Fort Bravo (click the links for our reviews of those). Today’s fine picture from that marvelous vintage is Warners’ offering, which was released in November ’53, and it starred John Wayne.
Now I really like Hondo, both the book and the film.
Louis L’Amour (1908 – 1988) is an enormously popular writer all over the world, even today, with over 100 novels and 250 short stories still in print, and he is one of the most famous Western authors of all. He had an interesting life, traveling the world as a seaman and being a successful professional boxer. He had read Henty as a boy and was always a lover of historical tales of adventure. He started publishing stories in pulp magazines in the late 1930s but wrote only one Western tale before the Second World War. After war service in the Army transport corps, he published more Westerns, often under the name Jim Mayo. He was also contracted to write stories for the successful Hopalong Cassidy franchise, as Tex Burns.
The short story The Gift of Cochise was published in Colliers on July 5, 1952 and read by Wayne and Robert Fellows, who bought the screen rights from L’Amour for $4,000. Wayne’s friend and close collaborator James Edward Grant was hired to write a screenplay based on this story, changing the main character’s name from Ches Lane to Hondo Lane. L’Amour retained the right to novelize the screenplay and did so, though the screenplay differed substantially from the original story. This was published as Hondo in 1953 and released on the same day the film opened with a puff from John Wayne stating that Hondo was the finest Western Wayne had ever read.
So L’Amour’s first Western novel was in some ways a novelization of a film. When the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Motion Picture Story, though, L’Amour objected, asserting that it was not original for the film. I bet Warners were pleased. Of course he went on to become, with Zane Grey, probably the most famous Western story-teller of all.
Hondo the novel is a good read. Grant did a very fine job on the screenplay and Wayne made a magnificent Hondo Lane. The movie was the new Batjac company’s response to the hard-bitten, tough-guy adult Western movies of James Stewart and Anthony Mann – such as The Naked Spur, released eight months before. Although in the novel Hondo wins his saddle for bronc riding, in the film it is his rifle that bears the name-plate, won in a competition of marksmanship. You don’t need to know much about Stewart/Mann Westerns to get that reference! But L’Amour also did very well in turning the movie back into a story on the printed page.
The book format allowed the writer to include episodes which are only referred to in the movie, notably an introductory chapter in which we read what happened before Hondo walks up to the Lowe farm, which was the opening of the film, and an account of the destruction by Apaches of Company C – again, Lane only refers to this in the movie, as he brings back the company’s guidon to the fort. Otherwise, though, the action of the book follows the screen Hondo very closely.
L’Amour’s style is semi-poetic and does verge, occasionally, on purple prose. But you do get a real sense of the beauty of the harsh Arizona landscape and it is also clear that L’Amour has done his research on Apache life and lore. You also get more of a sense of how Hondo and the six-year-old Johnny bond and how Hondo becomes, in effect, his father.
The novel, set in the late 1870s, tells of the Apache chief Vittoro (Vittorio in the film). This is presumably Bidu-ya or Beduiat, usually known as Victorio (c 1825 – 1880), warrior chief of the Chihenne band of the Chiricahua Apaches.
In his twenties Victorio rode with Geronimo and in the 1870s became one of the principal leaders of the Chiricahuas and Mescaleros fighting the United States Army in New Mexico and Arizona. In August 1879 he left the San Carlos Reservation and launched what became known as Victorio’s War. He won a significant fight at Las Animas Canyon on September 18, 1879. In April 1880 Victorio’s Apaches killed settlers in New Mexico in the so-called Alma Massacre and later he attacked Fort Tularosa. Finally, In October 1880, while in northern Mexico, Victorio and his band were surrounded and killed by soldiers of the Mexican army under Mauricio Corrdedor in the Tres Castillos Mountains, Chihuahua.
The Vittoro of the book is an almost sympathetic character. He and Hondo Lane build a mutual respect, and they share an affection for the young boy.
I enjoy Louis L’Amour stories. They can be slightly overwrought from a stylistic point of view, a little dated shall we say, but they have excellent pace, are authentic and have strong characters. No wonder they made so many good Western movies. If you haven’t discovered him yet, you could do a lot worse than begin with his first Western novel, Hondo.
But to the movie.
Hondo is a terrific Western. The opening is astonishingly Shane-like (Shane had finally been released in April ‘53): a mysterious gunman who comes out of nowhere, arriving at a threatened farm where he is attracted to the farmer’s wife and bonds with the young son? Quite a coincidence, you must admit.
But in Hondo the stranger is stronger (it’s John Wayne, not Alan Ladd); there is no husband to get in the way (although we meet him later); the wife, Geraldine Page, is at least as good as Jean Arthur in Shane (Page was justly nominated for an Oscar for it); and the little boy, Lee Aaker, is far grittier than the whiny kid in Shane (Brandon de Wilde). Shane never had a dog either (though Joey did). Hondo’s dog Sam, a mangy and more ferocious Lassie, is also great. Rumor hath it that Pal, the dog that played Sam, was the son of Lassie. Can this be true, do you think? As the Italians say, if it isn’t true, it ought to be (se non è vero, è ben trovato).
Apparently Page suffered from allergy to sunlight and as the Mexico desert during filming reached of 126°F (52°C) that must have been quite a trial.
Wayne is everything that Alan Ladd was not: tough, tall and powerful. It was a dress rehearsal for Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. He is absolutely superb and Hondo, Duke’s first Western for three years, is right up there not far behind Red River and The Searchers, True Grit and The Shootist as his finest work.
It was an early Batjac production and Batjac did a remake for MGM in 1967 called Hondo and the Apaches. That spawned the short-lived syndicated TV series Hondo of 1969 with Ralph Taeger as Hondo Lane – and Michael Pate as Vittorio again.
Wayne was originally to have confined himself to producing, and Glenn Ford was to have been Hondo, which would have been interesting, but Glenn Ford and director John Farrow didn’t get on at all and Glenn turned it down, so Duke took over. Glenn may have regretted the decision. After viewing the finished film at a private screening, Wayne jokingly said, “I’ll be damned if I’m not the stuff men are made of!”
In fact, though, Wayne and Farrow didn’t get on very well either. After Farrow’s death, Wayne even suggested that the director had contributed very little to Hondo, implying that he himself had done a good deal of directing on it.
It is often said, for example in a special feature on the 2005 DVD release, that Farrow left the set early and John Ford, no less, directed the final battle scenes (which do have something in common with scenes in Stagecoach). The Wikipedia article on the film, citing TCM, says, “The shoot went over schedule, and Farrow had to leave the production as he was contractually obligated to direct another movie. The final scenes featuring the Apache attack on the circled wagons of the Army and settlers were shot by John Ford, whom Wayne had asked to finish the film; Ford was uncredited for this work.”
However, the 3Dfilmarchive.com website says, “John Ford visited the location in Mexico. The popular myth is that Ford directed the climactic Indian attack because Farrow had to leave the shoot to begin another film. That’s not true. Farrow was present for the entire production (which wrapped in early August) and his next film, A Bullet is Waiting, began filming on December 7.” According to this source, Ford “directed two shots of the Duke seeing a troop of cavalrymen when he visits the army post.”
“Unit production manager” was Andrew McLaglen, part of the Ford/Wayne clan, who would go on to direct himself (though he was far from being in the John Ford class). Ford used Archie Stout to photograph his scenes, so two photographers are credited, Stout and Robert Burks, who did very well with the Mexico/Utah locations. It was Archie Stout’s penultimate film in a long career.
Like the Mann/Stewart Westerns, it had a much more subtle treatment of Indians than previous Westerns. Hondo is half Indian himself, has lived with the Apache and responds to them and their code. Vittorio reciprocates and there is mutual respect. It’s very far from the Ethan/Scar relationship in The Searchers. Vittorio was played by Australian Michael Pate, outstandingly well. Pate, who the same year wrote the story of the excellent Fort Bravo, went on to make quite a thing as an actor of playing American Indian chiefs. This was in the days before Hollywood cast American Indians as Indians – or I should say the days between, because early silent Westerns often cast American Indians in such roles. Pate was very keen on authenticity, and knowledgeable, but that didn’t prevent him having stirrups and a saddle under his horse blanket, while his Apache braves rode Indian-style. Fair enough.
As I said when reviewing Fort Bravo, also intended as a 3D picture, Hondo was laboriously made in the trendy new format, which had proved such a hit on Warners’ André De Toth-directed horror House of Wax earlier in the year. Principal photography began in Camargo, Mexico on June 11 but the director and cinematographers had trouble adjusting to the new camera. Nevertheless, the result was good. Soon 3D faded from fashion – apparently projectionists were finding it difficult to maintain synchronization between the two reels of film running during screening, a malfunction that would cause severe eye-strain and headaches for the audience. Of course these days it is seen in 2D form. It works well in 2D, though, because Farrow did not go for the garish tricks of guns and knives lunging at the camera and jumping out at the audience into the theater, or at least not too much (there’s the odd example). Only the lurid titles give it away.
A restoration of the film was undertaken by John Wayne’s son Michael in the late 1980s culminating in a syndicated broadcast of the picture in June 1991 on American over-the-air stations in anaglyph 3D. The necessary eyeglasses were sold to viewers, with proceeds going to charity. Sadly, as far as I know, the 3D version of Hondo has yet to be released on either DVD or Blu-Ray. It would be fun to see in 3D.
But many saw it in 3D back in ’53. An interesting article which you can read here (external link) tells us that “Hondo had one of the widest releases of any 3D feature from the 1950’s, playing the majority of its engagements in depth. According to a January 1954 article in Boxoffice magazine, there were 5,000 theaters equipped to run 3D motion pictures. From the cavernous 4,500 seat Fox Theater in St Louis, to the cozy 300 seat LaBelle Theater in South Charleston, West Virginia, Hondo graced many of those silver screens in its third-dimensional version.”
The same website tells us that “On June 18, Jack Warner viewed three reels of dailies and was concerned about the lack of close-ups, especially in the scene where John Wayne first meets Geraldine Page. He sent a telegram to the Duke and said ‘Director is not moving you and Geraldine close enough to camera. Everything seems to be too far away. Must have usual over-shoulder close shots individuals and tight twos in three-dimensional pictures so we can see peoples expressions and everything else.”
Duke and Farrow took the hint and the cinematographers moved in.
Support acting is excellent, notably Ward Bond as grizzled Indian scout Buffalo Baker, a perfect role for him (one of 23 films he made with Wayne), and another Wayne pal, James Arness (still blond) is an unsympathetic rival, even taller than Wayne.
Paul Fix is a major. These people, many from the John Ford team, became the Batjac stock company. My favorite is Leo Gordon as the reprehensible Mr Lowe, whom Hondo kills in self-defense and then has trouble explaining that to his widow. Well, you would. Leo was my all-time best Western heavy. He tells a good story about his death scene in the movie:
He shoots me and I’m lying on my right hip and I just buckled forward, and he says, ‘Jeeze Christ, don’t you know when you get hit with a damn slug, you fly backwards?’ So this time I was a little pissed off and I pulled up my shirt and indicated where I had once been shot. I told him I had caught two in the gut once and that I fell forward.
Leo was a tough nut and had served time in San Quentin. He knew more about fights that Duke did.
The scene where Hondo teaches the little boy to swim is great. As you may imagine, he doesn’t teach him at all; he picks the kid up by the seat of his pants and hurls the poor little mite into the river. There is a straight steal of this scene in the final reel of Yuma (1971) as the marshal (Clint Walker) throws the kid in the water and threatens that Julie will follow as she can’t swim either. Nay, let us not call it a steal; let’s say it was an affectionate quotation.
It’s 1953 and so it was quite acceptable for Hondo to be the super-competent man about the place, protecting the woman and tutoring the child. He makes horse shoes, sharpens the axe, breaks a bronc and does heaven knows what else for the Poor Weak Woman, in no time at all. This wouldn’t happen these days. Hondo Lane is the perfect Westerner, all-knowing, skilled, completely brave, laconic and tough. Ah, but he is also a poet and a sensitive lover and Mrs Lowe is no feeble pushover. She’s a gutsy frontier woman.
Hondo had its world première on November 24, 1953. John Wayne and Ward Bond flew to Texas for the showing in Houston, and then went to a second ‘première’ (if you can have such a thing) on November 25 in El Paso.
3Dfilmarchive.com tells us that “Despite a city-wide newspaper strike wherein there was no advertising available, Hondo still managed to performa an amazing $55,000 during its first week engagement at the 3,664-seat Paramount Theater in New York. The film was held over for three weeks during this play date, and at the Paramount alone grossed $128,000 in ticket sales.”
The picture’s 3D success was not confined to the US. In February 1954, it opened to capacity crowds at London’s 1,734-seat Warner Theatre, where it would play for five weeks and bring in over $40,000. Nearly three months later, Hondo was still playing in 3D in London theaters. Altogether the picture grossed $8.2m, the seventh biggest grosser of the year according to The Numbers, beating all other Westerns except Shane. Not bad on a $1m budget.
The critics were fulsome. Variety said, “Hondo, like Shane, gives the western an aura of maturity. It depicts a conflict of interests rather than an individual battle of good versus evil.”
Later pundits have liked it too. Brian Garfield talked of “the towering excellence of the characterizations”, adding, “Gripping and suspenseful throughout, Hondo is a fine example of Western moviemaking.” Dennis Schwartz called it “a superb offbeat Western” and Emanuel Levy “one of John Wayne’s best Westerns in the 1950s”. Herb Fagen in his Encyclopedia of the Western says Hondo Lane is one of John Wayne’s vintage roles. His entry on the screen is perhaps his most impressive since Stagecoach.”
As a little post script, if watching the distinctly average 1973 Warners/Batjac Western The Train Robbers, Western buffs will maybe smile slightly at one thing. In it, Wayne is named Mr Lane and Ann-Margret is called Mrs Lowe. Not only that, in Rio Lobo (1970), a wanted poster for Hondo Lane can be seen on a wall in the sheriff’s office, as a little in-joke.