June 6, 2012
Upgraded to Blu-ray, the John Wayne Western Hondo has just been released by Paramount Home Media. Hondo sold over a million units when it was released on DVD in 2005, but the Blu-ray boasts a new 1080p high definition transfer as well as many extra features.
If you’re familiar with Wayne’s classic Westerns, like Stagecoach, Red River, and Fort Apache, Hondo may come across as a change of pace. Based on a Louis L’Amour short story (which the author later turned into a best-selling novelization), Hondo stars Wayne as a mysterious, at times menacing Civil War veteran and widower who becomes the sole protector of single mother Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page in her feature film debut) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker).
Set in the deserts of New Mexico, the film is surprisingly forward thinking in its attitude towards women, Native Americans, and the frontier in general. Filmed in color and 3D in Mexico, Hondo made excellent use of cutting-edge technology—even if cinematographers Robert Burks and Archie Stout were often ill-at-ease with 3D effects. (An excellent article by Bob Furmanek and Jack Theaston on the new 3-D Film Archive site shows how involved Wayne and studio head Jack Warner were in the technical side of the filming.)
Hondo features a number of actors and filmmakers familiar from Wayne’s Westerns, like the garrulous Ward Bond and screenwriter James Edward Grant, both of whom are profiled in Blu-ray extras. James Arness, later the star of TV’s “Gunsmoke,” has a small role.
Like many of his contemporaries, Wayne started taking more control over his career in the 1950s as the studio system faded. With his partner Robert Fellows, Wayne formed a production company that would evolve into Batjac. Director John Farrow, an Australian native, had worked for Wayne’s company earlier that year on the thriller Plunder of the Sun. (Farrow married actress Maureen O’Sullivan; their daughter Mia has enjoyed an extensive acting career, appearing as Christopher Walken’s wife in the upcoming Dark Horse. And as a bit of trivia, biographer Tad Gallagher wrote that John Ford directed two of the shots in Hondo.)
Choosing projects entailed a lot more risk than simply accepting studio assignments, but it also gave Wayne the chance to take on more nuanced characters than those he portrayed in some of his earlier films. Hondo is a suspicious, close-mouthed character, someone who doesn’t want to get involved in the problems surrounding him. His relationship with Angie is a difficult one—which Geraldine Page emphasizes in her performance.
Wayne’s son Michael took over Batjac in 1961. As well as producing movies, Michael oversaw the company’s complicated holdings, which included copyright and distribution rights to Hondo, The High and the Mighty, Islands in the Sky, and McLintock! I spoke with his widow Gretchen Wayne this week, and she went over the specifics of how zealously her husband protected the Batjac films. She also took over the responsibility of running Batjac after Michael died in 2004.
Gretchen Wayne oversaw the Blu-ray upgrade, as well as a complete restoration of the 3D version of Hondo, which she has screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and other venues. She praised the new Blu-ray restoration. “Has it been on television? Yes,” she said. “Has it looked as good as it does now? Absolutely not. What you’re going to see here is a newer film, and you’ll see it in enhanced widescreen.”
She agrees that Hondo was an unusual role for Wayne. “It’s a little more intellectual than his other films. There are a lot more subtleties, more tension. And more respect for the Indian nation,” she said. “And then there’s some dialogue that the average woman today would shudder at, like when Geraldine Page says, ‘I know I’m a homely woman.’ But she’s so strong in that part—she got an Academy Award nomination for what was her first starring role.”
I wondered if John Wayne’s screen persona can still connect with an audience today. “Well, it’s interesting,” Mrs. Wayne replied. “I’ve got a 26-year-old granddaughter in the advertising business, and all her friends know who John Wayne is. They watch his films on their iPhones, which drives me crazy. You go to all the trouble to make a film that will look good in a theater and these kids are watching them on telephones!
“But they are connecting to him. His films are on all the time. Their fathers watched them, or their grandfathers. Or their mothers will talk about them. He’s a hero—just ask anyone in the military who John Wayne is. If writers or directors today want to give you a character with civility, honesty, and patriotism, they will give you someone like John Wayne.”
Mrs. Wayne met her future husband when she was fourteen, so she was intimately familiar with the Duke for several decades. She described him as a gentleman, someone respectful to women, and polite to the point of shyness. “He didn’t bound into a room all boisterous,” she said. “In front of me and my sisters-in-law, I never heard him say a vulgar word in all those years.”
What would get Wayne mad was a lack of professionalism on his movie sets. “My husband told me that when they went on location, the Duke was the first one there in the morning, and the last one away at night. He expected the same from everyone, particularly his own family. He meant it when he said, ‘Sun’s up, where are you?’ He couldn’t stand to waste time, it was like burning money.”
Wayne is an iconic figure, perhaps the most recognizable Western star and a potent cultural symbol. Growing up, it was easy for me and my friends to dismiss him as old-fashioned compared to anti-heroes like Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. With hindsight, I recognize how difficult many of Wayne’s choices were, and how honorably he treated his audience.
Today many viewers tend to lump Wayne in with more straightforward action stars instead of giving him credit as an actor. In his best films Wayne shows many different personalities: the conflicted boxer in The Quiet Man; the bitter, aging rancher in Red River; the homesteader who sacrifices his happiness in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and the grim, driven vigilante in The Searchers. It’s notable that in many of his films, like The Quiet Man and Angel and the Badman, Wayne plays men wary and suspicious of violence.
Mrs. Wayne singled out these films as favorites, as well as The Shootist, where “I thought he gave one of his best performances ever. It was touching to us, the family, more perhaps than to other people because we knew how sick he was.” Appropriately, The Shootist incorporates footage from Hondo to explain Wayne’s character’s background.
Mrs. Wayne pointed out that Angel and the Badman provided the template for the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness, and many of today’s action stars evoke Wayne, consciously or not. Hondo gives you the chance to see the real thing, one of the screen’s most memorable heroes at the height of his fame.
December 9, 2011
It’s been a busy year for Steven Spielberg. Witness The Adventures of Tintin, opening in the United States on December 21, and War Horse, opening four days later. Few directors manage to get two films out at once, but in addition to his directing chores, Spielberg received an executive producer credit on 11 film and television projects this past year, including Super 8, Real Steel and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. (He also found time to criticize the last 20 years of filmmaking, saying there are “not a lot of movies” that he would watch, while still putting a plug in for The X Factor.)
Spielberg’s sudden increase in output—he directed only seven other features since 2000—prompted me to think about whether quantity helps or hurts a filmmaker. Mumblecore pro Joe Swanberg has released six feature films over the past year: Art History, Autoerotic, Caitlin Plays Herself, Silver Bullets, Uncle Kent, and The Zone, displaying an admiral work ethic despite increasingly scathing reviews. Swanberg generally produces, writes, directs, and edits his films, which makes his output even more impressive. Some directors spend years on a single project, and several have spoken of their regret over not accomplishing more.
But Swanberg doesn’t come close to the medium’s more prolific directors. Take Takashi Miike, born in Osaka in 1960. After graduating from the Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film, he released his first feature in 1991. Since then he has completed over seventy productions in theater, film, and television. In 2001 and 2002, he received credit on fifteen features. Some of his films were direct-to-video releases, and not many have opened in the United States. Miike has worked in all genres, from family films to period adventures, but built his reputation on films like Audition (1999), a horror film based on the novel by Ryi Murakami. Its torture scenes unsettled even seasoned directors like John Landis and Eli Roth.
Although his recent 3D action film Hari Kiri: Death of a Samurai showed at Cannes, Miike seems to thrive on the controversy his movies elicit for their sex and violence. Rainer Werner Fassbinder provoked controversy of a different sort. Before he died at the age of 37 from a drug overdose, the German director made 40 feature films and two television series, as well as acting in dozens of films and plays and directing dozens of stage pieces. At various times he was also a cinematographer, editor, composer, and theater manager.
Influenced by Bertolt Brecht and by the French New Wave, Fassbinder cranked out film after film, relying on a troupe of actors that included the wonderful Hanna Schygulla. Films like The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) won Fassbinder world-wide acclaim and the ability to make films like Despair (1978), adapted from the Vladimir Nabokov novel by Tom Stoppard, and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), perhaps his most popular work. Two years later made the television Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on the novel by Alfred Döblin and released as a 15-hour movie in the US.
Fassbinder’s personal life was a stew of largely failed relationships compromised by his self-destructive tendencies. In public he was the subject of frequently bitter personal attacks from gays and conservatives, as well as mere critics. How he managed to complete 40 films in fifteen years is a mystery.
Then there are the real workhorses of the industry, the B-movie directors who flourished in the 1930s and 1940s. Joseph Santley directed over ninety features, including films with The Marx Brothers and Gene Autry. (Autry had his own punishing schedule: as well as making six to eight features a year, he hosted a weekly radio show, had frequent recording sessions, and sponsored a rodeo that toured the country annually.) William Witney, cited by Quentin Tarantino for his expertise, started directing low-budget serials when he was twenty-one. He is credited with more than 60 feature films, as well as hundreds of episodes of TV series.
It would be hard to top the output by William Beaudine, who started out in the industry as an actor for Biograph in 1909. After assisting D.W. Griffith on The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he directed shorts and then features for everybody from Samuel Goldwyn in the 1920s to Embassy Pictures in the 1960s. Beaudine worked with Mary Pickford, W.C. Fields, Will Hay, and Bela Lugosi. He also directed one of the most successful exploitation films of all time, Mom and Dad (1945). Accounts vary widely as to how many movies he actually directed, but sticking to only theatrically released features, he made more than 175.
Some records will never be broken, in part because the rules have changed. Buck Freeman, who played first base and right field for teams in Washington and Boston, was credited with two strikeouts in over 4000 at bats. A modern-day player could only strike out once in his career to top that record. Unfortunately, strike-outs weren’t an official statistic for most of Freeman’s career, so his record can hardly be considered valid. (On the other hand, it’s unlikely that anyone will top Cy Young’s 511 wins—or his 316 losses, for that matter.)
Similarly, it’s hardly fair to count the films D.W. Griffith made at the start of his career, since they were only one- or two-reels long up until the four-reel Judith of Bethulia in 1913. But they were still marketed as individual titles to be sold and later rented to theaters. Griffith made 141 in 1909 alone, including such groundbreaking titles as A Fool’s Revenge (a condensed version of Rigoletto), Those Awful Hats (about screening conditions in movie theaters), The Cricket on the Hearth (from the Dickens story), Resurrection (from the Tolstoy novel), A Fair Exchange (from Silas Marner), Pippa Passes (the first film reviewed in The New York Times), and The Lonely Villa (a thriller starring Mary Pickford).
Griffith and his crew were essentially making a film every three days, a burst of white-hot creativity that in my opinion will never be equaled. What’s even more remarkable was that he was simultaneously inventing narrative cinema as we know it today. Griffith may not be the world’s most prolific filmmaker, but he is certainly one of its most important.
September 21, 2011
Westerns were ubiquitous when I was growing up. On television and radio, in movie theaters, even at birthday parties, cowboys and their ilk ruled over everyone else. We couldn’t tell at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Westerns’ cultural dominance.
You can trace that dominance back to the 17th century, when for young colonials the frontier signified everything from an evil unknown to a chance for a fresh start. Into the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School and Manifest Destiny all pointed to what would become the defining characteristics of Westerns. We went West to find ourselves, to erase our past, to escape the law. We discovered a world of mountains and deserts, mysterious cultures, and stark moral choices. The genre became so popular in part because it was so adaptable, because it could address the central issues facing the nation. In Westerns, right and wrong could be cut-and-dried or ambiguous; Native Americans, enemies or victims; law, a matter of principle or an untenable burden.
From its earliest days, cinema turned to the West. In the 1800s, the Edison Studio filmed Annie Oakley and other stars of Wild West shows. The country’s first bona fide blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western, albeit one filmed in New Jersey. Some of the industry’s best directors started out making low-budget Westerns. John Ford for one, but also Victor Fleming, William Wellman, and even William Wyler. By the 1920s, every major Hollywood concern relied on the income from Westerns, and the genre later helped studios like Universal survive the Great Depression.
We tend to forget that for early filmmakers, the West was still real and not yet a nostalgic fantasy. An exciting new DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes this vividly clear. With over 10 hours of material on 3 discs, Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938 provides an unparalleled look at how filmed helped shape our concepts of the frontier.
The forty films in the set range from newsreels to features, with travelogues, sponsored films, documentaries, and promotional movies all providing unexpected insights into Western life. You’ll see the first cowboy stars, like the winning Tom Mix, famous for performing his own stunts; as well the expert comedienne Mabel Normand and the “It” girl herself, Clara Bow. Directors include slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man), and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind).
Equally as intriguing are the set’s lesser known titles, like Romance of Water (1931), a government-sponsored short that in 10 minutes encapsulates the political background to the great 1970s film noir Chinatown. Or Last of the Line (1914), which finds Asian star Sessue Hayakawa battling Native-Americans. Personally, I loved travelogues promoting sightseeing spots like Yosemite National Park. The women and children in Beauty Spots in America: Castle Hot Springs, Arizona (1916) are unexpectedly and appealingly giddy at the prospect of riding ponies and diving into pools. Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) still conveys the excitement travelers must have felt at encountering the area’s incredible vistas.
Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The Better Man, a 1914 film recently repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive. “The Better Man is fascinating because of its treatment of ethnic themes,” she said in an interview. The story contrasts a Mexican-American horse thief with an Anglo father and husband, with unexpected conclusions. “When it premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was greeted with cheering,” Melville recalled. “It was kind of wonderful, really, no one expected that such a modest film could pack such a wallop.”
The Better Man was produced by Vitagraph, a studio considered the equal of any in the industry during the early twentieth century. Comparatively few Vitagraph titles survive, however, which is one of the reasons why The Better Man was included in the set. “We want to introduce audiences to films that there is no way on Earth they’d be able to get a hold of otherwise,” Melville said.
As Melville points out, Treasures 5: The West 1989–1938 presents a different version of the West than the one found in the classic Westerns of the 1950s. “It was more of a melting pot and had more variety,” she said. “In our set, the West was still being used as a backdrop in industrial films and travelogues to incite business and tourism. Like Sunshine Gatherers, a film about the canned fruit industry that likens the beginnings of the orchard industry to the Father Junípero Serra’s founding of missions. In the story, the fruit becomes an embodiment of California sunshine that can be put in a can and shared with people all over the world. Of course with an understated Del Monte logo because it was put out by the Del Monte company to make every girl and boy want to have their canned fruit.”