At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Hondo “53”

MPAA Rating: NR/ Genre: Western/ Stars: John Wayne, Geraldine Page, Ward Bond, Michael Pate, James Arness, Rodolfo Acosta, Leo Gordon, Tom Irish, Lee Aaker, Paul Fix, Rayford Barnes, Frank McGrath, Morry Ogden, Chuck Roberson/ Runtime: 84 minutes

I guess it should be stated that the slice of cinematic pie that I am reviewing today, 1953’s Hondo is, despite working with both typical aspects of the Western genre including a performance by none other than John Wayne in the lead, is still something of a curio to behold when taking into account not only its history, but also its development and it’s spot in the filmographies for both genre and its lead actor. I mean when looking at this slice of cinematic pie at face value I cannot blame you for thinking that there is nothing that out of the ordinary about this film. I mean don’t get me wrong: without a doubt in my mind this is most definitely a grade B+ in quality movie that manages to regale audiences with a fairly riveting narrative that comes saddled with terrific performances, fairly riveting action beats, typically delightful work in the cinematography department, and molded by another script given to us by Mr. James Edward Grant that was inspired by a tale brought into the world by highly regarded writer Louis L’Amour. Yet the tale of this film is one that extends beyond just what audiences have been treated to on both TV and movie theater screens, and was a movie that was literally a pair of parts, one part seen by seldom if any, and the other seen by quite a few, but then hidden away for a long time after that. You see dear reader, this film was shot in 3D at the pinnacle of what was a 3D craze in the world of movie magic during the 50s. Yet for all the hard work they put into it, the 3D was granted very few screenings. Instead, the movie was distributed in the typical 2D format, but even that’s eventual vanishing act from theaters meant that it was also vanishing from audiences as well. That is until the movie was finally given a distinct 3D showing on TV back in the 90s and then released on VHS/DVD to movie lovers worldwide in 2005 which then brings us to my take on the film 16 years removed from that in 2021. A take that says that honestly if you love Westerns, John Wayne, or (and quite typically seeing as how easily the two go hand in hand) both then you owe it to yourself to check out Hondo. Yes it is not the typical entry in either the Western or John Wayne film catalogue, but it is still quite the root tootin’ good time to be had by any and all who choose to sit down for a couple of hours to give it at the very least a try.

The plot is as follows: Hondo starts its riveting Wild Wild West yarn as we witness a dirty and gun-carrying guy and his adorably rough and tumble pooch stumble onto a ranch that is owned and kept up by a woman named Lowe and her son Johnny. We quickly learn that the man’s horse decided to leave him and the woman’s husband is out rounding up cattle. Of course the man knows the woman is telling a slight fib and of course the woman knows she has no idea what to think of this mystery man…of course that might be a fib too. Be that as it may be we soon see our intriguing stranger kindly offer to teach both her and the boy how to do what needs to be done around the property so they might have a chance at survival. To that end, we see our mystery man take over the responsibilities around the ranch and in the process become a desperately needed surrogate dad to the young lad and a force of muscle against the itching for a fight gang of Indians roaming nearby who are slightly irked to say the least due to a treaty supposedly being violated by the “white man”. Yet while Miss Lowe initially feels that perhaps she and her son are finally at long last safe and secure with this man in their lives, this is of course before she comes to find out their mystery savior is a known killer by the name of Hondo Lane. To that end, we see that Hondo soon decides to leave the ranch yet not long after he does do we see a group of Apache decide to make their appearance known. An event that sees the tribe’s leader, one Chief Vittorio actually becoming quite impressed with little Johnny due to the boy showing true courage in an attempt to ward off the Indians all on his own. As a result, we see that Johnny and the Chief are turned into blood-brothers and the tribe leaves, but not before issuing a word of caution to Johnny’s mom. A warning that says that she needs to find a man who will raise and treat her and Johnny with the love and respect that they deserve. Otherwise the tribe will return and Miss Lowe will be pushed into being betrothed to one of the tribesmen so that Johnny can be schooled in how to be a fine Apache boy. Thus can Lady Fate intervene here and see Hondo come back into this lovely lady’s life even if doing so might make this fragile predicament even more complicated? That dear reader I will leave for you to discover for yourself…

Now right off the bat it should be noted that this slice of cinematic pie is one that chooses to function with an iconic narrative structure that is quite typical for this particular genre of movie magic. A structure that deals with, among other things, Cowboys and Indians, a lonely yet reserved female to love, a young boy needing fatherly guidance, and a single hero coming in and dispensing order where it is desperately needed. All you have to do is insert some truly extraordinary work in the cinematography department, some writing that is brilliant and efficient, and even some substitute helmsmanship by iconic helmer John Ford in the final minutes of the movie and what you have is a delightfully put together entry in the Western genre that feels like a worthy addition at the same time to John Wayne’s filmography. Suffice it to say that this slice of cinematic pie is one that manages to, by and large, operate on the level that its potential and promise seemed to suggest. Indeed this slice of cinematic pie is one that has an even tempo and pace about it and as such operates at a steady and reliable beat even as it makes its way through quite the intricate narrative with quite a bit that manages to continually mold and remold the landscape of the film as we see that everything is eventually showcased to us when it is time to do so. Yet it is the various interactions between the characters and ever changing narrative threads that result from that which are the key to ensuring that this film stays engaging while the action moments will ensure that you will be riveted as well. Suffice it to say then that is a film that feels like Western 2.0 in that it trades away the typical characters who are either one thing or another and gives us characters that are a lot more like you and I thus making for a much more relatable viewing experience in the process. Ultimately though this movie does at its core function just about on the same level as every other entry in the Western genre of movie magic that John Wayne sought fit to give us. By that I mean the movie is one that manages to showcase a wild yet integrity-filled perspective that, when operating with both the cast of characters and the narrative, make this slice of cinematic pie a true treat to behold even when looking at just how many Western movies there are to say nothing of how many films like this Wayne made throughout his career.

In addition, it should be stated that the performance given in this by Wayne is also successful in that it never backstabs once the larger than life protagonist style that Wayne was known for playing so well throughout his iconic career. Indeed everything from a specific speech cadence, massive shoulders, operating as both a man other men look up to/ surrogate father of sorts, and macho to the max albeit tapered with a wonderful tenderness is on to mold this character on the same level as the vast majority of the others Wayne portrayed. Yet whilst Wayne once again just looks like he came from back in time to the, at the time the film was made, present era, and is for all intents and purposes playing himself, it is intriguing to note that he also manages to make this character slightly unique in the process. A talent that I feel is a genuine tip of the hat to not only the quality of the written word and the helmers of the movies he was in, but also just Wayne’s own natural gift for bringing a character to life alongside an unyielding comprehension of not only the intricacies of the character, but also the genre of movie magic known as the Western period. Yet it should also be noted that Wayne’s turn in this is actually met beat for beat by that of Miss Geraldine Page who manages to make her way through the complicated narrative arc given to her character with a style and grace that aids this slice of cinematic pie immensely. Indeed her character is one that as the movie starts is a low-key scared and somewhat alone newly-single woman trying to raise her son whilst projecting on the surface that she is confident the boy’s father will return soon….or at least she will able to utilize him not being around to her benefit. Make no mistake though: Miss Lowe has a secret or two of her own and as she finally decides to start being honest with our hero and he with her, Lowe is able to finally become her own person and in the process show she is quite able to deal with things with a wonderful degree of strength regardless of the level of difficulty that comes with them..

All in all I am pleased to say that Hondo really truly is an immense, iconic, and evolved entry in the Western genre of movie magic that’s history off the camera is as riveting as the action and pathos that is occurring in the film itself. Indeed the narrative structure and sense of tempo found in this slice of cinematic pie may be what you would expect from an entry in the Western genre that had Wayne in the starring role, but the extremely well-written and portrayed characters in this manage to aid the movie in becoming one that is distinct above a lot of the others where it was clear as night and day who the good guys and who the bad guys were. It also doesn’t hurt in even the least that Wayne and Page also manage to make for quite the delightful dynamic duo in this film and the chemistry that they have is beautifully molded by both terrific characterization on the page and in their performances as well. Thus when you combine those things with terrific action beats and a speedy yet efficient tempo, what you are left with is a true blue example of just how fun the Western genre truly can be when done right. On a scale of 1-5 I give Hondo “53” a solid 3.5 out of 5.