HONDO announces itself boldly with big red title letters and a sweeping soundtrack. It’s kind of Wayne-Shane, raw rather than sentimental, a dose more surging than serene. While not at the level of The Searchers, it’s a solid 1953 Western epic, directed by the notoriously hard-boiled John Farrow, written with recognizable flourish by James Edward Grant, who adapted a Louis L’Amour story into a trim 83 minutes.
Loner scout Hondo (and his equally ornery loner dog) stride into the life of husband-abandoned Geraldine Page and her boy, just as the Apaches are ready to make another bloody pushback against the ever-encroaching whites.
The script walks a line between the traditional and modern (modern as in over sixty years ago) versions of the western mythology concerning the battle between what was considered civilization and what was regarded as savage. It takes as a fait accompli the tide of white settlement (Mexicans and African-Americans didn’t yet figure much in these movie yarns) but acknowledges that the cost was a vanished way of life for the Indians, a “good way“, in Hondo’s words.
Apaches, historically feared (with corpse-loads of proof) for their cruelty, had started to get somewhat of a warriors fair shake from movie makers in previous outings like Fort Apache and especially Broken Arrow, so by the time this came out Michael Pate (kind of an Aussie version of J.Carrol Naish when it came to playing various ethnicities) as ‘Vittorio’, and the always effective Rodolpho Acosta, as ‘Silva’, could play both ends of the dramatic field—nobility and nastiness.
Wayne’s quite good, filling the screen with his authority, that artful blend of relaxed swagger his fans ate up and his detractors never accepted. Stage-trained method actress Geraldine Page managed to mesh her style with Wayne’s (and got along fine with him despite being political opposites). In her first movie role, Page drew an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed won for From Here To Eternity, her Honolulu hooker out sexing Hondo’s ‘handsome’ housewife—if there’s a lesson here, I’m the wrong guy to answer it).
With Lee Aaker (getting a time-honored swimming lesson: my Dad got the same treatment from his tough-as-a-stump Pa, not all that far removed from the frontier), Ward Bond (lusty), Leo Gordon (dog mean), James Arness (too big for britches), Paul Fix (authority) and Tom Irish (green West Point lieutenant—not too hard to figure how he’ll end up). Great Warner Brothers sound effects add their punch. Hugo Friedhofer and Emil Newman share credit for the score. When a schedule conflict had director Farrow leave the shoot, John Ford came in and handled the rousing wagon train battle at the climax (he didn’t take any screen credit). Costing $1,320,000 (Wayne co-produced) it pulled down the 12th spot of the years moneymakers, with a gross of $11,500,000. If you like John Wayne, you’ll enjoy the movie. If you don’t, keep walkin’, pilgrim.
‘Sam’ was played by one of Rudd Weatherwax’ ‘Lassie’s, with brown makeup. The 110 degree Mexican locations scorched the valuable pooches paws. There was a brief kerfuffle when Lassie/Sam was dognapped by some devious locals and held for ransom, but she made it back unharmed. The film spawned a half-hour TV series that ran 17 episodes in 1967, starring Ralph Taeger. I met Ralph in the mid 70s. He was a friend of my brother-in-law, and had left acting to sell cars. ‘Bud’ (Larry Pennell) bought one of Ralph’s used station wagons, which promptly broke down.