Out of distribution for years, Hondo (1953), one of the key Westerns starring “The Duke,” was finally restored by the John Wayne Society in 1995 and made available for viewings again. It was said to be Wayne’s personal favorite of all of his Westerns and the storyline has a classic simplicity which captures the true spirit of the frontier: a cavalry scout (Wayne) comes to the aid of a homesteader (Geraldine Page) and her son (Lee Aaker) when the Apaches go on a rampage. Based on a novel by Louis L’Amour, Hondo was also surprisingly liberal in its attitude toward Native-Americans for its time and subtly addressed racial issues through the romance between the half-breed scout and the white heroine.
Interestingly enough, Wayne was not the first choice to play Hondo; it was Glenn Ford but the actor backed out when he realized John Farrow was slated to direct. Ford had previously had an unpleasant working experience with the director on Plunder of the Sun (1953). Wayne took the part instead and traveled down to Camargo, Mexico, where Farrow had assembled his cast and crew. Being a remote location, miles from anywhere, Camargo presented its share of production challenges but none were more daunting than the problem facing cinematographer Robert Burks, who was told to shoot the film in 3-D, a special visual process that enjoyed a brief craze in the early fifties.
Often considered one of the most popular 3-D movies, Hondo doesn’t exploit its visual gimmick like other films in the same genre like The Charge at Feather River (1953) with arrows, tomahawks and a hissing snake coming out of the screen toward the viewers or The Nebraskan (1953) featuring spears in your face and a fire in your lap. Instead, the 3-D process in Hondo is used to create more immersive depth of field compositions juxtaposing the characters against the overwhelming western landscapes.
Shooting in 3-D required two cameras mounted side by side and they were often temperamental and unpredictable machines which could break down at the worst possible moments. It took much more time to set up the shots in 3-D and the situation turned volatile when Warner Bros. ordered the crew to return one of the cameras which was on loan. Wayne exploded in anger, “We’re spending around $30,000 a week down here keeping this troupe running. If you don’t want to cooperate in this, just call me up and tell me to bring the camera back, and I’ll bring it back and cancel our relationship.” (From Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne by Ronald L. Davis). The tense situation was quickly resolved in Wayne’s favor but he was bothered by other things besides the cumbersome 3-D cameras and one of them was his co-star Geraldine Page, who made her film debut in Hondo.
Wayne had wanted an unknown actress to play the part of Angie Lowe, a pioneer woman with a handsome but slightly weathered face. Page, an acclaimed stage actress, was perfect for the part. In fact, she might have been too perfect. According to Randy Roberts and James S. Olson in their biography, John Wayne: American, her “teeth looked as if she had already spent a lifetime on some frontier where toothpaste and dentists were unknown.” The actress was immediately sent to “a Beverly Hills dentist who crammed twenty years of dental work into three days – cleaning, picking, filling, pulling, and capping away until Page’s mouth could stand the scrutiny of a zoom lens.”
Page also alienated some cast and crew members with her bad table manners (eating mashed potatoes and gravy with her fingers) and the fact that she loathed to bathe. Still, she certainly didn’t deserve the cruel treatment she received from her director and co-star. According to Roberts’ and Olson’s aforementioned biography, “John Ford showed up suddenly on the set and observed Farrow shooting a love scene. He told Farrow that audiences would not believe that John Wayne on screen had fallen in love with such a homely woman. Farrow had the lines rewritten, requiring Page to say: “I know I’m a homely woman, but I love you.” [John’s wife] Pilar Wayne later wrote that “it never occurred to Ford, Duke or John Farrow…to consider how she would feel about having to redo the love scene with the additional lines they wanted her to say.”
As for working with Wayne, Page later revealed that due to the slow 3-D filming process, “we had lots of time to sit under the broiling Mexican sun. I sat and listened to Mr. Farrow and Mr. Wayne in horror. Everybody tried to be Duke’s right-hand man and his favorite. It was like the stories you hear about the old court days. Everybody was trying to slice everybody else’s reputation in the Duke’s eyes. There was tremendous, tremendous competition.” Yet, the actress grew to respect Wayne, stating, “He hates all kinds of hypocrisy and folderol. He’s a terribly honest man, and that comes across on the screen, underlined by the parts he plays. One of his first mottoes, I think, is always to be the hero to the people around you. Wayne has a leadership quality, so that people revere him.”
When it came time to release Hondo, the 3-D craze was starting to die so a week after the film opened nationally, the studio recalled the special process prints and replaced them with flat versions. Despite this last minute change of plans, Hondo still proved to be a hit with moviegoers but it couldn’t compare with the phenomenal box office success of Shane which was released the same year and had a very similar storyline. Ironically, Geraldine Page had the last laugh when she scored an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Hondo, the only nomination the film would receive. It completely baffled Wayne who had made sarcastic comments to the actress about Stanislavsky, stage actors and Page’s lack of film experience during the making of the movie.
Page would go on to earn another seven Oscar nominations, three for Best Supporting actress (You’re a Big Boy Now , Pete ‘n’ Tillie , The Pope of Greenwich Village ) and four for Best Actress (Summer and Smoke , Sweet Bird of Youth , Interiors  and The Trip to Bountiful , her final Oscar nomination and her only win). My own personal favorite of her many roles is Page’s performance as the neurotic head of a Southern girls’ school who takes in a wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood) during the Civil War in Don Siegel’s gothic melodrama The Beguiled (1971).
Seen today, Page’s performance in Hondo holds up beautifully but so does Wayne’s and you can see the influence Farrow’s film had on future filmmakers like George Miller, who duplicated the look of the barren landscapes and the character of the lone scout in his Mad Max series, particularly The Road Warrior (1981). Hondo also inspired a short-lived 1967 TV series starring Ralph Taeger in the title role. Curiously enough, the pilot episode Hondo and the Apaches never aired on television but was released overseas as a theatrical feature.
Other trivia of note: Hondo went over schedule and budget and Farrow had to leave the production to direct another film, leaving Wayne to bring in his mentor John Ford to direct the final scenes in the movie. Another regular member of Ford’s stock company – Ward Bond – also has a prominent supporting role in the film. James Arness had already appeared in numerous western films at this point but he would become a major TV in two years with the premiere of the iconic series Gunsmoke (1955-1975). You may also recognize Mexican American actor Rodolfo Acosta (Flaming Star, One-Eyed Jacks) in the role of Silva and Australian actor Michael Pate as the Apache chief Vittorio. This is a typical example of Hollywood casting during its era of not using Native American actors to play characters from their own culture on screen but Pate brings a welcome complexity and dignity to the part.
Although several classic films from the fifties that were shot in 3-D are available in that format (if you own a 3-D Blu-ray player) such as Dial M for Murder, Kiss Me Kate, House of Wax, Gog, and The Mad Magician, Hondo is still unavailable as a 3-D Blu-ray for some unknown reason although a 2012 article in the Smithsonian Magazine stated that Gretchen Wayne, wife of the Duke’s son Michael, had supervised the restoration. Maybe there were contractual problems between the Wayne estate and Warner Bros. In the meantime, fans of the film can still purchase the DVD or Blu-ray editions released by Paramount in October 2012.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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