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Featured Blu-ray Review: Hondo

June 4th, 2012

Hondo - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

When I got the chance to review Hondo, I jumped at the opportunity, even though all I know about the movie is that is stars John Wayne and it's Al Bundy's favorite movie. Just a quick bit of research shows it was an interesting film, to say the least. Originally shot in 3D, the film did quite well at the box office, but wasn't a massive hit, and earned a pair of Oscar nominations. I happen to be a bigger fan of the Clint Eastwood style of Western than the John Wayne style, but there are a number of John Wayne films that I consider classics in the genre. Will I add this one to that list?

The Movie

We first meet man as he and his dog are walking up to a homestead in the west. A man walking is a strange sight and the lady of the house, Angie Lowe, a little concerned about his intentions. Her son, Johnny (Lee Aaker), is excited to see someone, and even more excited to see his dog. The man introduces himself as Lane and explains he's lost his horse to an Apache ambush and is in need of a replacement. He has no money, but he can pay with a Calvary Script. She's still wary and when asked if she's alone, she's quick to claim her husband is nearby and will return shortly, but she agrees to give him some food and offers one of her not-quite tamed horses. He also offers to do some chores around the ranch as an early payment. It is at this time that Lane figures out her husband has been gone a long time and Lane figures he's not coming back. He figures he's been killed by the Apache. Angie doubts that, as they've always been friendly with the Apache and they even have a treaty. However, recently the white men broke the treaty and it looks like the Apache are planning to go to war over this. He was riding to the Calvary fort to warn the army about the Apaches' plan for retaliation.

Lane continues to help with a lot of the chores around the ranch and Angie asks him to stay the night. She's set up a small bed on the floor for him. However, that night she sees his rifle, which has his name on it: Hondo Lane. She recognizes it as the name of a gunslinger who killed three men not long ago. She draws a gun on Hondo and accuses him of killing those men. He doesn't deny it. He also doesn't seem too worried that she's pointing a gun at him. That's because he realizes the first chamber isn't loaded. Since he didn't even get angry that she drew a weapon on him, she realizes that he's a gentleman and wants him to stay. The next day when he rides off to town, the two kiss.

Shortly after Hondo leaves, Angie is visited by the Apache tribe and their new leader, Vittorio (Michael Pate), and his second in command, Silva (Rodolfo Acosta). She's always had a good relationship with the Apaches, but the new leadership wants all white people gone. Her pleas about how she's always treated the Apache fairly in the past are ignored, which is when Johnny appears with the gun. He shoots at Silva, but misses, but his bravery earns their respect. Even so, they warn Angie again. She either has to take an Apache husband, or leave with the rest of the white people. Vittorio takes a personal interest in Johnny, saying he needs a father to teach him to be a man and a warrior.

When Hondo gets back to the U.S. Calvary fort, it's clear the settlers are not happy with the level of protection they are getting, while Hondo is not happy with the settlers. Friends of his in the Calvary have been killed trying to protect the settlers. He heads to a saloon to talk to one of his friends, who is currently playing poker. When one of the other players objects, Hondo takes the opportunity to beat the crap out him. It's only after the fight that he learns the man's name: Ed Lowe (Leo Gordon). So maybe Angie's husband wasn't dead. The next day, Ed tries to press charges against Hondo for stealing his horse. Technically the horse Hondo got from Angie belongs to Ed, but there's no evidence Hondo stole it. He even says he's riding out to Angie's ranch to return it. When the law won't take care of Hondo, he decides to do it himself and follows Hondo out.

Unaware that Ed is following him, Hondo breaks to set up a camp. However, it isn't long before he notices Apache nearby readying for an ambush. Hondo runs for cover, just as Ed and his friend show up, and shortly after that, the Apaches attack. Ed's unnamed friend is killed right away, but Hondo manages to save Ed's life. However, instead of thanking Hondo, Ed tries to shoot him. Hondo's a faster shot. Now Hondo has to return to Angie and try to explain what happened, but he will only get a chance to do that, if he can avoid the Apaches.

At this point, we start running into too many spoilers, so we will stop the plot summary there.

Like I said before, I prefer Clint Eastwood westerns over John Wayne westerns. Also, while some consider Hondo as one of John Wayne's best westerns, I'm not in that group. True Grit, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, and Rio Bravo are all better films. The film only clocks in at 84 minutes, and there's just not a lot of time for character development. This is especially true of a couple of the bad guys in the picture, and without strong bad guys, the heroes are not as heroic. It also feels very small compared to the western epics that are remembered most fondly. It has all of the right ingredients for a epic movie; it just feels smaller than it should.

On the other hand, saying, "Hondo is not as good as True Grit" is not really an insult and the movie has a lot of strengths. Firstly, the Apache Indians were actually rather well developed. They were not cartoonish villains like you would expect from a Western made even just a decade before this one. Sure, they were the villains, but as Hondo explained to Angie, they were on the warpath, because the white people had broken the treaty. There's also good chemistry between John Wayne and Geraldine Page and the romance gives the film a solid emotional foundation. Additionally, the film's technical attributes are all very strong, for the most part. The cinematography is excellent, but the film was shot in 3D, which is an added complication. There were a few scenes where the 3D was done in a gimmicky way, and in 2D it looks silly. Also, because the cameras were so cumbersome, the filmmakers were more constrained in the way they could film and couldn't get the sweeping shots that are common in the genre.

Overall, Hondo is an amazing film, but it is not up to the level of a true classic.

The Extras

Extras start with a two and a half minute long introduction by Leonard Maltin. He also sits down with film historian Frank Thompson for an audio commentary track, while actor Lee Aaker was recorded separately and mixed in. There's a trio of featurettes, starting with the three-part The Making of Hondo, which runs more than 40 minutes and is very in-depth. From the Batjac Vaults is a short Entertainment Tonight segment shot for Hondo's home market debut in 1994. The Apache runs close to 15 minutes and looks at the real history of the Apaches and how they were portrayed in films. There is also photo gallery and a trailer.

The film's technical presentation is good, given the film's age. It is nearly 60 years old, so the amount of grain present is not surprising. Having too much grain is better than having DNR come along and give the film a plastic look to it. Also, the film's colors are very strong. There are no compression issues to worry about. The audio is likewise showing its age. The dialogue is clear, but there is not a lot of activity in the surround sound speakers, nor is the subwoofer active.

The Verdict

Hondo is a great western, but not a classic. The Blu-ray is well done, but the film is showing its age. However, on, it only costs $13, which is a real bargain.

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Filed under: Video Review, Hondo