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December 16, 2005

Hondo

John Farrow - 1953
Paramount Region 1 DVD

If the commentary for Hondo is not quite as informative as I would want, there are still nuggets of information that make one wonder about how the film would have been different. Film historians Leonard Maltin and Frank Thompson discuss the film, with former child actor Lee Aaker piping in. The big new that may have some film scholars scrambling to re-examine and revalue Hondo is the information that in addition to second unit work, John Ford directed the closing sequences while John Farrow went to direct another movie. Certainly some of the compositions look similar to Ford's work, particularly shots panning up along the desert mesas with the Apaches gathering for battle. I'm not familiar enough with Farrow's films to recognize his visual style, but one has to also assume that visual choices were also dictated by working on behalf of producer Wayne, in a Western in a region somewhat like Monument Valley, and with the cumbersome 3-D camera. That Hondo was originally photographed using the two camera 3-D system, yet virtually only seen as a standard 35mm movie also raises some questions about seeing the film its makers intended.

In one-eyed Andre De Toth's House of Wax, Vincent Price would throw a chair towards the camera, and a character would play with a paddle ball. Such were some of the first 3-D films that would make a point of virtually attacking the audience. Only a couple of shots were done in Hondo that were obviously created to exploite 3-D, particularly in a knife fight where John Wayne and Rodolfo Acosta "stab" the audience, and later when a rifle is shot aiming toward the camera. Jack Warner had initially mandated that important films be shot in 3-D. While John Farrow notes that filming would have taken a week less using a standard camera, one has to wonder if Hondo would have looked different.

To describe the story risks making the film sound less interesting than it is. Hondo Lane, a horseless cavalry scout, stumbles upon the ranch of Angie Lowe and her young son, Johnny. The ranch has fallen into disrepair, and Hondo assumes that Angie's husband has either died or deserted her. The ranch is in Apache territory where there is a tentative peace. Hondo finds himself attracted to Angie and feeling somewhat paternal to the boy. The Apache chief, Vittorio, is also concerned about Angie and offers her several Apache suitors. At less than ninety minutes the film doesn't have the sprawling narratives of Ford or Hawks. Neither does it have Ford's vistas or Hawks' clubbiness. Would Hondo be memorable had Glenn Ford taken the role as originally offered? My own feeling is: probably not. No less than Bertrand Tavernier will sing the praises of Delmar Daves, Cowboy, 3:10 to Yuma, and Jubal, three westerns starring Glenn Ford. John Wayne in one of his lesser films (Big Jake) springs to mind more clearly imagined than Glenn Ford in a great film (The Big Heat).

One other bit of casting news was that Geraldine Page was the third choice to play Angie Lowe. In the commentary, it's mentioned that the first choice was Katherine Hepburn. The commenary also mentioned that there was concern about her politics. What would have made this casting interesting is that Hepburn and Wayne were the same age. They would eventually work together in 1975 in Rooster Cogburn, a weak follow-up to True Grit. Dorothy McGuire was considered as well. Page was even less conventionally attractive than the other two actresses. In part of the dialogue, Angie and Hondo discuss Angie's "plainess". I'm not sure what Wayne and Farrow had in mind in their search for an actress although Page did get an unexpected Academy Award nomination for her first major film role. Page also ended up working with Glenn Ford eleven years later in Dear Heart, as well as a film directed by John Farrow's unofficial son-in-law.

The DVD also contains a short documentary on the Apaches which mentions that they were a matriarchy. There are also short documentaries on screenwriter James Edward Grant and Ward Bond. Leonard Maltin diplomatically notes that Bond was very outspoken about his political beliefs. I'd love to see a biographical film that told the real Ward Bond story, but more likely, as John Wayne said in The Searchers, "That'll be the day."

Posted by peter at December 16, 2005 04:26 PM