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teaser Hondo (1954)

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. 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, University of Oklahoma Press). 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 (University of Nebraska Press), 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 poor hygiene habits (she loathed to bathe) but 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 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. Seen today, Page's performance holds up beautifully but so does Wayne's and you can see the influence Hondo 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.

Producer: Robert M. Fellows, John Wayne
Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: James Edward Grant; based on the story “The Gift of Cochise” by Louis L’Amour
Art Direction: Alfred Ybarra
Cinematography: Robert Burks, Louis Clyde Stouman, Archie J. Stout
Editing: Ralph Dawson
Music: Hugo W. Friedhofer, Emil Newman
Cast: John Wayne (Hondo Lane), Geraldine Page (Angie Lowe), Ward Bond (Buffalo), Michael Pate (Vittorio), James Arness (Lennie).

by Jeff Stafford

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