“Hondo” hasn’t exactly been a lost film in the 53-plus years since its original release, but few people alive have seen it as it was meant to be seen.
Pic was filmed in WarnerColor 3-D, yet even at the time got only a limited 3-D release.
So when the picture screens at Cannes, with its color and 3-D digitally restored, audiences will finally have the full experience director John Farrow and producer-star John Wayne intended.
Gretchen Wayne, the star’s daughter-in-law and the prexy and owner of his production company, Batjac, says, “If you never had seen a John Wayne film, this might be the first one you want to see, because he’s at his peak.” She says the Duke himself felt he looked his best in the film, which catches him at 46, mature but still lean and athletic.
The cowboys-and-Indians side of the film is pure 1950s pulp but still manages to weave a surprisingly complex triangle between Wayne’s part-Indian cavalry scout, the married-but-abandoned ranch woman (Geraldine Page) he comes to love and the Apache chief (Michael Pate) who also takes a protective interest in her.
The supporting cast includes a raft of familiar faces, including future “Gunsmoke” star James Arness and none other than Lassie, hair dyed brown and with a makeup scar on her forehead, as the ill-tempered Hondo’s worse-tempered dog.
Wayne was something more than the top box office star of the day and a producer. As Gretchen Wayne notes, “He was able to demand to have the return of the copyright of the film and perpetual distribution of his film, which was really unique for actors.”
“Hondo” shot on location in Chihuahua, Mexico, at a time when such travel was rare, especially for oaters, which could shoot much nearer Los Angeles.
But that made 3-D more difficult. The 3-D rigs used a pair of interlocking 35mm cameras, each running single-strip WarnerColor negative film. The massive cameras proved so unreliable at the desert locations that Wayne complained to Jack Warner that the studio couldn’t seem to get him a camera that worked.
Still, the 3-D went ahead because the studios were trying to regain the audience they were losing to television. Then, as now, the ability to project a stereoscopic image seemed to be something the small screen couldn’t match.
Warner Bros. took out a two-page spread in Variety in November 1953 to tell exhibitors: “It is our conviction that the presentation of ‘Hondo’ gives your patrons the opportunity for the first time to fully evaluate
3-Dimension entertainment.” Ad went on to tout the presentation of “dimensional vistas inexpressibly beautiful and never before possible.”
Yet the 3-D craze had passed its peak. “Hondo” in 3-D screened at only a few theaters and has almost never been seen in 3-D since.
The film itself has been restored more than once, with most of the restoration work done only on the left-eye negative, which was used for 2-D release. There were tears to be fixed, lots of dirt to be removed. Strange perforations in the film stock had to be masked. On top of that, parts of the original negative had mysteriously been destroyed and replaced with an internegative, which doesn’t quite match the quality of the original.
Restoring the film for 3-D introduced still more challenges. The two color negatives had shrunk and faded differently, making it even more difficult to get the color identical and the images perfectly aligned. That exacerbated an inherent problem with the 3-D rigs of the 1950s: Each of the paired cameras had its own camera shake, so the two “eyes” would be just enough out of alignment to make 3-D viewing uncomfortable. It proved a big task for the restorers at Post Logic, who spent much time and effort correcting for that camera shake to get the two eyes to line up precisely for 3-D.
Merle Sharp, Post Logic’s chief technology officer, says that one headache they faced was simply “trying to find somebody who saw it originally so they could tell us if the 3-D effect was working as intended.”
At the end of the process, Sharp says, “(The 3-D) was actually quite good, but there’s almost too much. It’s like … the guys are sitting right in your face.”
Gretchen Wayne, though, says the digital 3-D is far better than the original release. “I never really got it, it never really affected me that much,” she says of the original 3-D, with its red-green anaglyph glasses. “Now with the new digital format, you feel like you’re sitting at the table with him. You can feel the depth, it’s so sensational. It’s like, ‘Pass the bread.’ “