Hondo is Western cinema to its deepest cores. John Wayne, ranchers, bucking broncos, cattle, bar fights, Apaches, rifleman, and internal conflict. Instead of wasting time with known phrases like, “It’s as American as John Wayne and apple pie,” save yourself the trouble and yell Hondo.
It’s more than a stock western with Wayne at the helm of it, but a respectful turn for the Apache. Bonds have been broken as Hondo kicks off, the Apache warring with a purpose. They don’t have a word for “lie,” we’re told in Wayne’s gruff mannerisms, and they’ve been lied to. It’s a break of honor and trust, setting off a fire in a traditional, steadfast chief.
Hondo works because it’s such a small tale, down to a handful of key players, sprawled onto the screen with magnificent photography and pronounced highs. Immensely scaled stunt work highlights a finale that only works because of the build-up, all of the diving horses and speared white men for naught unless there’s a purpose.
The film isn’t eager or rushed to do much of anything the audience might expect, this despite an initial launch in expensive, bulky 3D. Visions of Wayne firing off rounds from the hip don’t come to fruition until the last act, this despite a character billed a precision rifleman. A young Geraldine Page is unusually stiff as the love interest, a rancher sitting on Apache ground with her young son. Lee Aaker’s turn as child without a father has an emotional curve, his attention drawn between the Apache Chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) and Hondo.
There’s a precise balance between the elements, each driven by a concern for development. The film’s opening shot, a ghostly Wayne appearing on the horizon towards Page’s land on a rocky outcropping, calculated and sure. It’s more than a hero shot, Wayne’s Hondo torn and battered after a trek through Indian territory. This isn’t the hero’s grand entrance despite being backed by a wondrous, spacious score. Think of it as disconcerting to the audience, the bold Wanye taken down before so much as a punch has been thrown on screen. He’s vulnerable, and in that instant, so is anyone else.
A Warner Bros. production that, through the years of legal dealings beyond the typical viewer, ended up at Paramount, Hondo is still in fine hands. Those are the two studios you’re looking for when it comes to classic catalog efforts. Mastered in 4K, the initial blast of images past the bold, high credits are a marvel. If there’s ever a need to make a call for the preservation of film at its purest, Hondo can be in the running as the lead evidence.
At its best, this is a marvelously precise reproduction of the film stock, here in 1.85:1 widescreen for the first time on home video. There’s the AVC encode chugging away to push out a beautiful, controlled grain structure. It’s especially brilliant during a dust covered finale, with wagon trains and circles kicking up the land. The Warnercolor process, a duplication of Eastman color, doesn’t strain the beauty of the plains or that vivid scarf Wayne wears for most of the film. Military uniforms are deep, enriching blues, and war paint on the Apache tribe is brilliant.
Restoration has cleansed the film of any imperfections, even in the difficult shots -like those with dust- the film stock finds itself free of any age stamps. There’s not a line or scratch remaining. Nothing shows signs of fading, those nighttime interiors loaded with rich black levels and still a keen eye for detail. Texture is not lost on this transfer, from the grit of the close-ups to the dust covering just about everything. It’s full of life.
Then, there’s the unavoidable. Fades will mar a significant portion of the film, shots languishing in mediocrity before the process can complete into the next edit. There are even inserts that diminish themselves, sandwiched between the clarity of untouched film. Transitions in quality are jarring, even if little can be done to avoid the shift. It’s disheartening in a way, but if the expectation is there, it’s easier to handle.
Thank you Paramount. Included with Hondo is the original mono in TrueHD and an equal 5.1 encode that cares for the source. The option to choose between the two uncompressed is all we ask for. Those petrified about changes to the newly crafted surround mix have few worries to concern themselves with. It’s respectful, utilizing the available channels to broaden the scope of the score, not go all out with bullets pinging in the surrounds. Action remains contained to the center, leaving the score to feel breathless and inviting.
Fidelity is wonderful, again highlighted by the musical accompaniment. Broad highs are captured with little to no loss, with lows carrying their own weight and heft. Nothing sounds muddled or restrained. With the added touch of modern equipment, dialogue sources become prominent, the airy lines spoken by Wayne clashing with a more studio-esque quality from Page. Like the video, there’s that shift in quality from one to the next in general conversation. Still, it’s outstanding work.
Leonard Maltin joins Western historian Frank Thompson and actor Lee Aaker for a commentary track, leading into a three-part, 43-minute making of. Both are excellent in their insights. A clip from Entertainment Tonight has Maltin visiting the John Wayne vault to detail the VHS release of Hondo back in 1994. A look at the life of the Apache Indians is told with earnest and historical significance, including how those events bleed into the film. Paramount caps the disc with a photo gallery and trailers.
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