Based on the Louis L’Amour short story “The Gift of Cochise,” John Farrow’s Hondo is a surprisingly modest western. It features John Wayne in one of his most realized roles. He cracks off multiple lines about his life’s philosophy and embodies the self-governing spirit of the sentimentalized West, delivering his typical brand of grand charm in the process.
Wayne and his production company purchased the rights to L’Amour’s short story and set James Edward Grant to work on the adaptation, with the Duke and production partner Robert Fellows keen to shoot the whole thing in 3D. But the equipment was bulky and Farrow wasn’t exactly the guy to make the most of the technology, so Hondo doesn’t have a lot of gimmickry when it comes to the format.
Wayne stars as Hondo Lane. He’s introduced walking out of the desert nothingness with a dog. He encounters the homestead of Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her six-year-old boy Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie claims that her husband is out rounding up cattle in the mountains and should be back soon, but it soon becomes apparent this isn’t true.
Lane takes to helping Angie and Johnny around the house for a while, but he eventually returns to his Calvary post. The Apache are raiding and killing settlers because of the white man’s lies, says Lane, and Angie and Johnny find themselves in the middle of the action. Eventually, the situation comes to a head as Angie’s husband is discovered and Hondo has more than few run-ins with the Apaches.
Hondo is a very independent character and Wayne is the quintessence of plain practical advice. He tells Johnny that he should do whatever he wants, regardless of opinion. When the kid wants to pet the dog, he lets him and the dog bites him. That, according to the Duke’s character, is the only way a kid’s going to learn. Later, the same method is employed to teach Johnny to swim.
Hondo’s means apply when it comes to the womenfolk, too. When Lowe lies to protect herself, Wayne’s character asserts his belief that women always believe a man comes around wanting something. In this instance, it turns out to be true. The attraction between Hondo and Lowe is irrefutable and Wayne smoulders when he starts the heavy flirting.
Page, primarily known for Broadway acting, is clearly a student of method herself and her portrayal of Lowe won her an Oscar nod. Her character is an interesting collation of emotions and considerations, especially when she weighs her captivation with Hondo’s Apache-related past against what she views as her own conservatism.
And that aforementioned past gives Hondo a sense of regard for the Apache way of life, presenting a certain degree of compassion for the Chiricahua Apache Chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) and his companions. The Apache aren’t just mechanical savages and their ways are regarded tenderly by Hondo, who notes that his rivals have no word in their tongue for “lie.”
As mentioned, Farrow directs the picture without much of a mind for the 3D. The vistas are notable, but the focus is in the foreground to give the impression of depth and that can give the movie a sort of shallow appeal. Cinematographers Robert Burks, Louis Clyde Stoumen and Archie J. Stout do the best they can with the cumbersome equipment.
Shooting went over schedule and Farrow had to take off to start another picture. John Ford was brought in to complete Hondo and he’s responsible for the final scenes when the Apaches and settlers have their showdown. It’s a stunning action set piece that does make use of the 3D, with arrows flying toward the screen and Hondo directing traffic.
While Hondo may embody the Wayne ethos more completely than any other picture, there’s still something uneven about it that leaves a rather plain impression. Whether it’s the production’s inability to handle the unnecessary 3D or the offbeat pacing, Farrow’s movie falls shy of greatness. It’s still a quality western and it features Wayne at his best, but it’s not the sturdiest mount in the yard.