Hondo (1953)

JOHN FARROW

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.   

USA, 1953, Screenplay by , from a story by Cinematography by , . Produced by . Music by , . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by Academy Awards 1953.

A scout for the US army (John Wayne) stumbles upon an isolated ranch where a woman (Geraldine Page) lives with her young son.  He warns her that she shouldn’t stay in the middle of Apache territory without the protection of her husband, but she insists that her relationship with the surrounding tribes has always been good.  She is unaware that, while she and Wayne are trying not to cause a scandal by playing house thanks to an obvious and instant attraction between them, betrayals by the American government are about to lead to war between natives and settlers.  Coming out the same year as Shane did this subtler and smaller western no favours, it comes off as a minor version of that much more expansive film; it also doesn’t help that it seems to be ambivalent about its genre,  a fascinating character piece with scenes that could be played to great satisfaction on the stage but with action scenes and chases that are exceptionally edited and directed but also feel like they’re wedged in to reward a mainstream audience.  The film’s attitude towards its native characters isn’t anything that would pass muster today, there are clearly actors in brownface populating that section of the story and the physical conflicts never favour their point of view, but there’s a frequent and very interesting emphasis on presenting the Apaches as a misunderstood and poorly served community that suggests a much more liberal attitude than you could count on from the entertainment of the day (which usually presented white characters as the new land’s sore moral, inevitable overseers).  Page, in her first (credited) film role, is exceptionally good, you don’t need much depth from the screenplay thanks to her charting the story’s themes in her expert dialogue delivery and even more bewitching reactions to everything , even making the film’s weird twist (involving the path to which she and Wayne can be together) reasonable and possible.  Gorgeously shot in a rich colour scheme, this might not be The Searchers or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon but it’s a worthy experience that doesn’t have a single dull moment.

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