Correction to This Article
An Oct. 9 Arts article incorrectly said that the 1953 film "Hondo" was not released in 3-D, and that the format was in decline at the time. The film was released in that format, which was still widely used at the time.

Who's Our Daddy? For A Generation, It's 'Hondo'

An essay on the makeup of an ideal father: From left,
An essay on the makeup of an ideal father: From left, "Hondo's" Lee Aaker, Geraldine Page, John Wayne and Ward Bond. (Warner Bros./photofest)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005

The early baby-boom generation's disillusion with its own parents and its own country reached its apex around 1967, but it may have stemmed from a shattering discovery we made en masse in 1953, at the age of 7.

That's when we learned our dads weren't Hondo.

Nah. They were just dads, flawed, busy men who barely noticed their kids except to give us a swat or a whack when we got out of line or they had too many martoonies. No, they sure weren't Hondo and we had to punish them for it. (Boy, did we get them but good, huh? However, that's another story.)

Because Hondo was John Wayne, mythic even then, and for many of us the image he portrayed in "Hondo" that year was an image no man could live up to. He was tall and strong, encased in buckskin, his wise eyes hooded by the broad brim of his hat, looking to and possibly beyond the horizon. He was fair and calm. He was tough but not mean. He had temper but not rage, only decency under the muscle. He had a poetic streak and an emotional one; he knew what love was, just as he knew the drop of a .38- 40 from a Winchester carbine at 100 yards and how to knife-fight and fish and swim. He could ride or shoot or fight as well as any man alive, but he didn't seem to brag on it. He killed Indians but he loved Indians; he killed white men but they were low-down skunks. He protected. He made things safe and let you grow. Otherwise he believed in letting alone, doing his duty and setting an example. He didn't order you to be like him, he made you want to be like him.

Not even another myth could live up to him: He was so much cooler than wimpy li'l Shane of the same year, and to my mind, one of the signal absurdities in film history is the deification of "Shane," a solemn, logy, self-important film made around a tiny little man who had to stand on crates to act (Alan Ladd, who let you become a movie star?) and the concomitant systematic refusal to acknowledge the genius of the vigorous, virile, far more entertaining and emotionally engaging "Hondo."

It's probably not politics, however. Though Wayne, when we were in our twenties, became an avatar of old patriotism and wrongthink on the issue of Vietnam, the disappearance of "Hondo," a modest programmer, was probably a function more of the tricks of memory: It was overwhelmed by the far greater "Searchers" that came along three years later and instantly achieved masterpiece status with a darker, more psychotic, even frightening John Wayne. Indeed, Wayne almost seemed scorched by "The Searchers" as well, and never went that far or deep again, finishing his career in avuncular mode.

Now "Hondo," long unavailable, has been restored to the pristine glory of its original color print, and has been re-released on DVD, along with all the DVD extras -- the full Leonard Maltin treatment, as it were, with Leonard himself giving the Duke a benediction, including a profile of screenwriter James Edward Grant and co-star Ward Bond, as well as a short documentary on the making of the film. (The restored 52-year-old movie, in fact, enjoyed a black-tie premiere Tuesday at the AFI Silver Theatre, with various luminaries from the Wayne family in attendance to mix with the swells of Washington, but somehow . . . I couldn't bring myself to attend. If the invite had said "Winchester optional" as opposed to black tie, then I might have attended.)

And maybe some movies should be seen alone, accompanied only by ghosts of fathers that were and fathers that should have been. It's better that way.

Today, what remains of that mythic allure of the Duke? Well, Pilgrim, let me tell you: plenty.

Someone knew about myths in those days and how to frame them. When we first see him in the distance, rifle in hand, face wary, hat low, walking slowly toward us ( us being the boy in the film, Lee Aaker, who stood for a whole generation, very much as Brandon de Wilde did in "Shane") with that graceful slide of stride, both solid and speaking of speed, he's the Westerner of our dreams but he's also . . . the father of our dreams.

For the film is set up -- again, like "Shane" (neither can have influenced the other as they were simultaneously in production) -- as a secret meditation on that complex, spiny thing between dads and their boys. Its subtext is the parent trap, the Oedipal rage, the disappointment each feels in looking at the other, and the love that underlies it all.

As the movie has it, extracted by Grant (who was the Duke's favorite screenwriter) from a short story by the then-unknown Louis L'Amour, Hondo -- Indian scout, dispatch rider and gunfighter -- has been unhorsed by Apaches and, roaming the plains in search of a steed, happens upon the Lowe spread in a green, almost paradisiacal valley in the Southwest. But what he happens upon, unlike the spread Shane happened upon (which was idealized in the form of the Van Heflin-Jean Arthur perfect marriage and the perfect little boy de Wilde), is something we all knew more commonly existed: the family imperfect.

It was our family. Well, not actually, of course, but it computed with our families or families we knew. It was a part of the real rather than the ideal and it was instantly knowable in the '50s, when all over the tube equally perfect families were being blasted onto our eardrums and eyes. In "Hondo," set in 1874, the dad's a brute, a coward and a quitter; he's vanished, leaving the woman (Geraldine Page in her first substantial screen role) and the boy, even as the Apaches are rising. Hondo just needs a horse; he's got a job to finish. But seeing people in need somehow changes him; he learns that he also needs to love and protect, which completes him as a man, just as the bad dad's inability to do the same uncompletes him.

The story continues as Hondo -- himself part Indian, in a movie surprising for its progressive, respectful stand on Native Americans, given Wayne's reputation -- tries to protect the family, warn the Army, raise the boy strong and straight and hmmm, maybe even sneak a kiss from Mama, whom, in the way of deep undercurrents, he's mightily attracted to, as she is to him. There'll even come a time in the subtly brilliant plot line when the bad dad -- eternal movie bad guy Leo Gordon -- tries to ambush Hondo. He learns: You don't spit into the wind, you don't tug on Superman's cape and you don't draw on Hondo Lane.

But there are other fathers about in this primal wilderness -- so much so that you could almost pretend the movie is set in a psychological zone rather than a geographical one. The Apache chief Vittorio (superb Aussie actor Michael Pate, who played Indians 10 more times in his distinguished career) is also charmed by the woman and the brave little boy on the plains, and demands that she take an Apache husband because the boy needs a father. That's the iron mandate of "Hondo," and it's the one that nobody seems to have listened to, to all our regrets: Boys need fathers, good men and true, who'll teach them the way.

So, under its politico-historical recapitulation of the Victorio War (Pate's character is modeled on the brilliant Chiricahua leader who led a guerrilla war for a year) and the heroes on both sides, is really the story of a quest for the ideal father as well as an essay on what the ideal father would be.

The answer is memorable, and someone -- who knows if it was L'Amour or Grant or director John Farrow or Wayne himself? -- encapsulated it in a single sequence that sank in deep -- it happens to be one of those movie images that stayed with this moviegoer for more than half a century, and when he saw it recently it moved him as powerfully as it had in 1953. Here's your dad: He throws you into the creek to make you swim because, of course, all men need to know how to swim. That was it -- the intimacy of the grapple, the strength of the man against the squirming boy, the launch through the air, the submersion in the green cold world, the thrashing and the magic moment when the boy learns his dad was right. He could do it! He could swim. "Mom, Mom, I can swim!"

It helped, of course, that Aaker was a superb child actor (he'd later star for five years on "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin"), and his Johnny was all boy and had no "actorly" pretenses. But mainly it was Wayne, who somehow got the duality into the action: He could throw the boy into the water unsentimentally, yet also with a great deal of tenderness. It was what fathers give their sons, distilled: tender brutality, a demand that was simultaneously an expression of love, geared toward an ideal of manliness that encompasses heroism, responsibility, self-discipline and stoicism. It's not a touchy-feely thing where he pretends to feel the boy's pain, not even a little bit; but it's real. It's from the lost era of repression when nobody said the L-word, which made it all the more powerful.

This is extremely interesting, because "Hondo" was the first movie Wayne produced himself, which means it's arguably his purest evocation of his own appeal and his own sense of manhood. He'd been a major movie star since 1939 and a minor one for 10 years before that, and he'd seen lots of other men growing richer and richer on the sweat of his noble brow. "Hondo" was the first production of his own company, Batjac, which meant that he finally controlled his own image.

At the same time -- more on fathers! -- it represents his own Freudian drama on the issue: It was an attempt to make a classic John Ford western without John Ford -- that is, without the stern guidance of his discoverer, his mentor, his father figure ("Pappy" was Ford's nickname, to everyone in general and Wayne in particular) but also his torturer, his doubter, his nemesis, his unimpressed royal-highness pain in the butt.

Instead, Wayne hired journeyman John Farrow and got . . . a John Ford western without John Ford that was not as good as if it had been directed by . . . John Ford. Though here's the funny thing: Maltin reveals that at the end of the shoot, Farrow, under contract, had to return to Los Angeles. So, reluctantly one presumes, Wayne called the one man he least wanted to, John Ford, who came in and shot the climactic sequences. It shows: You may hate your dad, but if you need a helping hand, he's the one guy you can count on.

The movie also represents a Hollywood history dead end: It was shot in 3-D, using bulky 3-D cameras in the Mexican desert, to take advantage of the hottest thing going in movies then. Alas, by the time it was ready for release, 3-D had crashed and burned, driven out by too many bad monster movies, so "Hondo" was released in old-fashioned 2-D, except that it has 3-D flourishes still encoded in it, like fists or arrows that come into the lens of the camera; they would have sent 1953 moviegoers ducking and shucking but now this seems merely odd. The DVD producers left the lens-happy lunges in all their absurd grandeur.

And "Hondo" does all the de rigueur western stuff brilliantly, including the riding (a great stunt ride down a cliff face) and the shooting. It's one of the rare '50s pictures that honor the Indians; it's got a great comic take by Ward Bond, and if you look fast you'll see Dodge's Marshal Dillon in a pre-"Gunsmoke" role, back when he was just a small-time actor named James Arness.

All and all, you'll watch it mesmerized until it's finished and then you'll think: "Hondo! Come back, Hondo!"


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