Is Hondo the definitive John Wayne movie?

I don’t thing many people would argue that Hondo is the best of John Wayne’s movies. Similarly, I don’t many will argue against it being among his best both as a western and as a performance from Wayne. But if ever there was a movie that illustrated what John Wayne did onscreen, how he came across and essentially provided a definition for those words “John Wayne,” it’s Hondo.

Hondo (1953)

Directed by John Farrow

You don’t get more John Wayne than 1953’s Hondo. It’s a great Wayne western and that is surprising because it had two things going against it.

First is the fact that Wayne had his onscreen persona nailed by this time and the story almost seems to have been written with him in mind. The risk the movie had to play around with was avoiding becoming parody by turning character into caricature.

The second is the period the movie was made. At this time, Hollywood was crazy for 3-D and so the movie was made that way.

Unfortunately, by the time the film came out 3-D’s day in the sun was past and interest was on the wane (no pun intended).

John Wayne as Hondo Lane.

More to the point for us now is that there is an emphasis on foreground, and some specific scenes in the film that are designed to garner ooh’s and ah’s from a 1953 audience watching 3-D.

Today, especially watching it in standard two dimensional style, they feel awkward and anachronistic. Even silly.

Yet the movie manages to avoid turning Wayne into a caricature and doesn’t really suffer from its period 3-D fascination.

In fact, as I’ve seen stated elsewhere (Grant Tracey), this is probably the best John Wayne western that wasn’t directed by either John Ford or Howard Hawks. (I think Don Siegel’s The Shootist could be a contender, however.)

IMDb summarizes things succinctly: “Army despatch rider Hondo Lane discovers a woman and her son living in the midst of warring Apaches, and he becomes their protector.”

Hondo (John Wayne) approaching the farmhouse and Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her son.

John Wayne plays Hondo Lane; Geraldine Page plays Angie Lowe, the woman with a son Lane comes across.

What evolves from that meeting is essentially a romance though in a western setting and with all the trappings of a western, including Apaches at war.

The movie works because it is rooted in a Louis L’Amour story that James Edward Grant turned into an almost perfect western screenplay — certainly perfect for John Wayne when it came to his character and the dialogue.

It’s aided by an Oscar-nominated performance by Geraldine Page and an equally good, though strangely so due to the odd casting, performance of Michael Pate as Vittorio, the Apache chief.

What we end up with is a movie that has the requisite western drama and action but also rich characters that reveal themselves unhurriedly. It is in Hondo’s nature to be a man of few words though, when he does speak, what he says is rich with meaning and is one with his actions.

Hondo Lane and Angie Lowe (John Wayne and Geraldine Page).

Angie, the abandoned wife with a child, is also vague — even deceitful in what she says — because she’s unsure of who this man is and she is alone, in Apache territory, with a son to protect.

The two discover one another slowly and are attracted in part for the respect they have for one another.

The end result is almost a template for a good western — strong story, strong characters, and a story arc that when it is completed feels that way: complete.

This is just one really good western and is definitely worth seeing at least once.

Is it the definitive John Wayne movie? I don’t think so. It may, however, be an almost near-perfect example of the definitive image of John Wayne that lingers even still.

(I’ve seen Hondo spoken of as being similar to another 1953 movie, Shane. But I think the similarity is superficial at best. They are alike in that there is a farmhouse and a stranger who comes upon it. The stranger is good with a good gun; the farmers are peaceful and domestic. Where the movies go from there is very different and there is little if any similarity in what the movies’ concern themselves with.)

3 Responses

  1. Josie says:

    At 47, I am a brand new fan of John Wayne. I Just started watching his incredible movies this fall and I aim to see all of them. Hondo was one of the first of the Duke’s movies that I saw. So captivating that I watched it three times. I am now reading the book. What I like most about Hondo is the honesty of the characters and how Hondo’s integrity drives him to tell the truth about what happened. Truth be told, I enjoy the smoldering romance…conveyed by looks and words. Favorite dialogue is when Hondo describes how Apache can track someone by scent.

  2. Tom Jackson says:

    Hondo is one of Wayne’s great western movies; however, the best western that he did was The Searchers which is considered by many as the quintessential western.

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