30 Great Westerns

John Wayne fights Apaches in Hondo.

Hondo is the best John Wayne Western not directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks.

Set in the desert, Hondo is a romance story between half-Indian wanderer Hondo Lane (John Wayne) and a down-to-earth settler woman, Mrs. Lowell (Geraldine Page). Their scenes together carry the film and are full of a charming longing for intimacy. Dressed in a dusty fringe shirt, and speaking with a soft-spoken ease, Wayne’s Hondo returns him to the natural-man characters he portrayed in The Big Trail (1931) and Stagecoach (1939). He’s Natty Bumpo, connected to the earth. While he shods a horse and Mrs. Lowell tentatively watches--hands on both elbows and an apron around her waist--he tells her that she smells of baking power, salt pork, soap, and "on top of all that, you smell like a woman."

He’s interested in her and she, although too proper to be direct, in him. As she watches him work, she asks questions, talking quickly, attempting to keep him close. Mrs. Lowell (who we later discover has lived in an unfulfilling marriage with a man who was a gambler, a cheat and an adulterer) gravitates to Wayne’s charisma. She often asks him romantic questions about his past with sideways glances suggesting her desire for him to be romantic toward her. When Wayne discusses his brief marriage to an Indian bride, his romantic imagery and connection to the land wins over Mrs. Lowell and helps her forget that he’s a gunman. Eloquently, Wayne defines the meaning of his dead wife’s Indian name: "makes the buttes stand out . . . or the first sounds you hear of a brook, curling over some rocks . . . stand outside and feel the bite of first wind." He also tells Mrs. Lowell that she reminds him of her, but in a different way, and she freely states, "I’m fully aware that I’m a homely woman, Mr. Lane." But he disagrees, reassuring her that she has an interior beauty that glows with trust. He kisses her and feels guiltless: "A long time ago, I made a rule. I let people do what they want to do."

Of course there’s more to Hondo than just romance. The couple’s relationship gets complicated when Hondo has to kill Mrs. Lowell’s no-good husband in self-defense. There’s also an Indian uprising subplot, Wayne becomes a father-figure for Mrs. Lowell’s young son, and lots of stunt gimmickry takes place because Hondo was originally filmed in 3-D. Spears, arrows, running horses careen toward us, and dead men topple off of wagon trains into the camera. But gimmickry aside, Hondo is the most domestic of Wayne’s Westerns and director John Farrow brings out gently nuanced performances from the two leads that rekindle that special chemistry John Wayne achieved with Gail Russell, seven years before, in Angel and the Bad Man.

--by Grant Tracey