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 Romantic Comedy: John Ford/John Wayne’s Hondo

By Paul Grawe and Robin Jaeckle Grawe

Work in progress

© 2022

 

In March 2022, ITCHS published a working definition of Redemption Comedy as a sub-genre of Comedy, centered in the practical example of John Ford/John Wayne’s seminal Western, Stagecoach. In sharp contrast, we here use John Ford/John Wayne’s Hondo to exemplify a definition of Romantic Comedy as a sub-genre of Comedy in general. Both the analysis of Stagecoach and the present analysis of Hondo rely on the same methodology of comedic sub-genre definition.  All comedic sub-genres, of course, have a comedic line of action.  However, different sub-genres contrast with each other in Special Language, Opposed Forms, and Spirit. Readers are thus encouraged to reconsiderStagecoach, John Ford, and Redemptive Comedy” after exploring Hondo and Romantic Comedy here.

Three Caveats

Romantic Comedy is a very familiar term, in use for many centuries without anyone seeming to care to define the term as anything more than a central interest in two people falling in love and joining one another. For our purposes, such a definition is the definition of a Romantic theme, not a Romantic sub-genre. Theatre people know that romance draws an audience.  All sorts of drama include a romantic theme for purposes of audience interest and direction without being fundamentally and throughout a Romantic Comedy.

That said, everyone should recognize the gigantic breadth of romantic comedic experience within literature, drama, and film. Is there then a single Romantic Comedy sub-genre, or is Romantic Comedy itself like Comedy-in-general in having a variety of sub-generic forms? As a first caveat then, we leave the possibility of multiple Romantic Comedy alternate sub-genres an open question for the present inquiry. We might want to substitute the phrase “Romantic Comedy  (A)” for “Romantic Comedy,” simply to remind ourselves of the possibility of other variants that deserve their own separate attention.

1

 

We need also to be careful about the central theoretical issue of the relation of humor to all Comedy and specifically to Romantic Comedy. There has always been a profound tendency to equate Comedy with laughter. Indeed, this confusion has led to literary criticism running largely in circles ever since Aristotle’s brief (and generally misleading) comments in the Poetics. Light, fluffy Comedy, of course, has a great deal of humor.

Stagecoach as Redemption Comedy limits the laughing aspects of Comedy to a few, if also impressive, roles for Curly, the stagecoach driver, and for Doc Boone.

Similarly, Romantic Comedy as a sub-genre has such a strong interest in matchmaking that it doesn’t particularly need the enlivening addition of laughter. In Hondo in particular, laughter is virtually absent. The absence does not make Hondo lesser as Romantic Comedy.

Third, sub-genres of Comedy need not be independent and non-overlapping. Stagecoach is a Comedy, a Western, and a Redemption Comedy simultaneously. And Hondo is heroic Comedy, Western, and Romantic Comedy all at the same time.

With these caveats established, then, we begin a definition of Romantic Comedy exactly in the model of ITCHS’ definition of Redemption Comedy, that is, we assert that an adequate definition must include, beyond the comedic line of action, a definition of appropriate Special Language, a recognition of the range of Opposed Forms, and an assertion of the range of Spirit which is appropriate to the sub-genre being defined.

The comedic line, or more traditionally the comedic form of action, for Romantic Comedy is simply the form of action of Comedy generally made more specific for the sub-genre.  In Comedy generally, the form of action is a patterned action demonstrating faith in the success and/or survival of the human race. (See “A Formal Definition of Comedy,” Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination.) For Romantic Comedy, the form of action or comedic line is a patterned action demonstrating faith in the success and/or survival of the human race as represented in the race’s ability to find one or more mating pairs and demonstrating that such pairs can come to agreement to become paired.  Typically, Romantic Comedy ends before consummation of a settled sexual relationship, and traditionally until fairly recently, the agreement was most likely symbolized by a kiss or, less often, by a vow.

2

 

Appropriate Special Language for Romantic Comedy

In approaching Special Language for Romantic Comedy, we are looking for four variants, a quadrilateral thereof, the four variants comprising the great bulk of the appropriate possibilities for such Romantic Comedy Special Language. It is important to note that these four variants of Special Language will not be confined to specific discussion within the romantic relationship. Rather they often are found in other parts of the film, thus not merely leading the relationship toward a romantic conclusion but also surrounding the relationship, reinforcing the romantic patterning.

What kind of language then is the Special Language of Romantic Comedy leading to a settled coupling?

We suggest first of all, Commitment. Settled permanent coupling normally takes commitment, and a work that is characterized as Romantic as opposed to some other form of Comedy is very likely to specially emphasize language concerning Commitment.

Second, we suggest that the language of Romantic Comedy often emphasizes Mystery. What makes two people right for each other, drawn to each other, in a sense that is exclusive to them?We might write dissertations trying to answer.  And at the end of the dissertations, we might still conclude that the answer still eludes us, is still shrouded in Mystery. Perhaps not everyone is bewitched, bothered, or bewildered on their way to matrimony. Such bewilderment is, nevertheless, a greatly attested reality both in life and in comedic art. And Romantic Comedy is very likely to talk about it.

Third, returning to the sane world—which romance often isn’t—romance often gets entangled with Reason and Judgment, “Judson” if you wish.  Parents are stereotypically known for pressing Judson any time they don’t take a shine to the prospective in-law. If that fails, Judson can also be used to justify delay, a time to think it over, to come to one’s senses, or at least to one’s parents’ senses. And the like.

Not to blame everything on parents, however unreasonable that idea may be in itself, people contemplating a permanent settled coupling have every reason to think it through carefully. Whether they actually follow up on this reasonableness is another question and not pertinent here. What is pertinent is that romance and Reason may together seem oxymoronic.  Nevertheless, expect Judson to always be knocking at the door and generally getting in the way.

And finally, often introduced by Judson, it has been long noted that at least traditional marriage is itself defined as a basic complementarity.  It is not thought of as two peas from the same pod finding one another. More complex Complementarity abounds, and it is a large preoccupation of Romantic Comedy to discuss these complexities, often either in terms of their reasonableness or in terms of their Mystery and sometimes in terms of the Commitment necessary to actualize such Complementarity.

3

 

A Romantic Comedy Special Language Diagram

So, mission accomplished: we have four major variants of Romantic Special Language. As such, they create a quadrilateral, four distinct analytic types which as dominating rhetorical forms or “leads,” can be paired with one another to create synthetics. We can make the synthetics perhaps more understandable to some and much more memorable to just about everyone by presenting what we have just concluded in a diagram. 

We build a circle, divided into six equal segments. We use our four variants by putting a combination of two of the four variants in each quadrant, yielding the schematic below. (See Figure 1.)

 

Romantic Comedy Special Language Circle

Diagram

Description automatically generated

 

Figure 1

What the diagram suggests is that there are potentially six distinct synthetic variants of Romantic Special Language, each composed of two “leads” among the four analytic variants. The words outside the circle represent a synthesis. These “rubrics” are catch phrases that allow us to remember a ball-park sense of what the two analytic elements will feel like when they are emphasized together in a dramatic work.

Thus, for example, Reason and Complementarity emphasized together have a feeling of Appropriate relationship. At the opposite extreme, Mystery and Commitment create a feeling of Destined relationship.

As we leave Special Language definition, it is well to warn that we are talking about art, not about the writing of dissertations. Art disguises art and hardly ever goes about its deepest interests in logically and carefully chosen, explicit vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. We must be prepared in considering Hondo as our test case—the story of a taciturn, virtually silent man and a repressed and isolated woman—to find that Hondo has consistently used the Special Language of Romantic Comedy but that we never quite noticed it as it went by.

It may also be well to remember that we are potentially talking not about Romantic Comedy, period, but about Romantic Comedy (A). If there is a Romantic Comedy (B), it most likely can be apprehended first as exhibiting a different set of four Special Language variants. Perhaps there is a Battle of the Sexes Comedy in a Punch-and-Judy tradition which does end in marriage but only as the bell announcing the first round of a never-ending prize fight. Such an alternate Romantic Comedy might quite possibly have a different quadrilateral of Special Language.

4

 

Forms of Opposition in Romantic Comedy:  Impediments

Following our model of investigation of Redemption Comedy, we move on to a quadrilateral of Other Forms, forms which weave in and out of the comedic sub-genre, forming the woof crossing the warp of the comedic line. In the case of Romantic Comedy, we will call these Other Forms Impediments because they impede the comedic line of advance. They are also likely to run counter to the forms of Special Language.

Thus, we have said that the Special Language of Romantic Comedy specially highlights the language of Commitment. One of the central contentions then  working counter to such language will likely be Prior Commitment.

We have said that the Special Language of Romantic Comedy highlights the language of Complementarity. One of the central contentions then to such language is likely to be Antipathy.

We have said that the Special language of Romantic Comedy emphasizes Reason/Judgment, our Judson. That suggests a central contention of incompatibility, lack of resources, unfittingness, and related concepts of reasoned resistance which we will subsume under Incompatibility.

That’s three of the four.  Mystery, the fourth Special Language variant is mysterious of course, but it is also attractive and thus allied to romance. Often just as mysterious is the World impeding romance with road blocks from here, there, and everywhere that suddenly introduce themselves and attempt to negate the possibility of romantic success. While Mystery is attractive, the World is disorienting, threatening, even diabolical.

Again, as with Special Language, we can create a circle diagram pairing Impediments to romance. (See Figure 2.)

Romantic Comedy Impediments Circle

Diagram

Description automatically generated

 Figure 2

Note again that we provide rubrics for lead pairs of the Impediments, which inherently recognizes the tendency of drama to press beyond a single analytic Impediment to consider the much more interesting warp-and-woof of a dominant pair of Impediments.

 5

 

Spirit in Romantic Comedy

And that brings us to the Spirit of the work as a whole. Spirit is only distantly adumbrated in Aristotle’s discussions of tragedy and comedy and has little presence in later dramatic criticism, at least as a definitive characteristic of genre.

Like Spirit virtually anywhere, Spirit is very hard to get hold of.  Spirit is like the wind, and it goes where it wills. Nevertheless, Spirit is discernible, particularly discernable in contra-distinction to some other posited Spirit. 

Spirit cannot be pointed to at a specific moment within drama but rather is something that grows organically throughout the work.  It is only in contemplation of the work as a whole that a contradistinctive sense of one Spirit as opposed to another can be tellingly argued.

And generally speaking, we talk about Spirit in the singular rather than in the plural. A tragedic or comedic work of art typically has one, not several, dominant Spirits.  So while we are able to compose a circle of expectable Spirits for Romantic Comedy, we will not press the point of dominant pairs.  It is normally better to think about a single but distinct Spirit of the work as a whole.

What then are expectable Spirits of Romantic Comedy?

The most remarked upon Spirit of Romantic Comedy is a Spirit of being Meant for Each Other. But there are other possible Spirits. In many cultures, Respect rather than Meant-for-Each-Other Love is the expectable ideal for marriage. Or, if not Respect, the ideal may be Trustworthiness. And in some cultures, marriage is defined in terms of Submission and Obedience. It is entirely fair for us individually to choose one of these ideals and to reject entirely the other three either for a specific marriage relationship or even for marriage in general. And it is entirely within the definition of Romantic Comedy for the individual work of art to propose any of these Sprits as the Spirit that can ensure the success and survival of the human race.

So we have an analytic quadrilateral of Romantic Comedy Spirits which could be made into a circle representing dominant pairs. However, we forego doing so because it seems to confuse rather than to elucidate most practical criticism of Romantic Comedies.

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Hondo as Comedy

We are then in a position to illustrate the definition of Romantic Comedy in individual works, specifically here in John Ford/John Wayne’s Hondo.

From a practical criticism stand point, we should notice that most Westerns, including Hondo, are not discussed as comedies. Comedy is supposed to be about making the audience laugh, and Westerns often neglect laughter all together, or as in Stagecoach, limit the laughable to what might be called “comic relief” in Doc Boone’s constant inebriation and Curley’s idiosyncratic take on the teamster life.

In Hondo, if there are humorous moments, they are unavoidable rather than emphasized. Hondo throwing Johnny into the water to teach him to swim is an example.  Angie running away when she realizes that she may be next to learn to swim is perhaps the only overt joke in the entire movie.

The absence of humor by itself is reason to choose Hondo for our example, to make entirely manifest that the definition of Romantic Comedy presented above is not to be confused in any way with laughter or mirthful entertainment.  Certainly, there are vast stretches of Comedy in which the analysis of mirthful entertainment is centrally important and other stretches where, while not centrally important to any Comedic message, mirthful entertainment is still what draws the audience. (For in-depth analyses of the interworking of various forms of humor and comedic form see Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle; Cheshire Smile: and Four Seasons)

Hondo, however, is representative of neither of these Comedic potentials.

Instead of looking for humor to make Hondo Comedy, we need first to establish the comedic line, a formal element, the form of the action itself.  Comedies are said to end happily, which is largely true but less than accurate. We need to articulate a solid formal definition of Comedy not dependent on laughter. In all ITCHS analyses, Comedy is an action of patterned, repeated success or survival, ultimately demonstrating a faith in the survival of humanity, a definition articulated in 1983 in Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination.

Does this definition imply a happy ending? Are we necessarily happy about such success or survival? Dark comedic experimentation throughout the 20th and into the 21st century has tested just this possible constraint on Comedy. (The full answer is quite complicated and more fully discussed in Comedy in a New Mood). But in short form here, No, we need not be happy about the success and survival. Waiting for Godot, for example, can easily be taken to be utterly depressed by humanity’s inability to get about ending itself. At the same time, we need to recognize that being happy is finally up to the audience, not up to the play: when Waiting for Godot was played before lifers at San Quentin prison, the audience’s sense of empowerment and invigoration became something of an international enigma demanding a revision of previous comedic criticism.

If we as audience are not necessarily happy about the patterned success or survival we have witnessed, then a fortiori, the characters we have been watching need not necessarily be happy. Driving Miss Daisy, a very typically American dark or Sombre Comedy, ends seriously and intently with Miss Daisy eating a piece of pumpkin pie. Miss Daisy and Hoke are not well characterized as happy. They are exceedingly well characterized as peacefully, even serenely playing out the great truth that they have become best friends.

Hondo as Romantic Comedy

7

 

So what then is the Romantic comedic line of Hondo? Asked otherwise, what is the repeated pattern of success and survival of Ford’s and Wayne’s Hondo, a pattern asserting the success or survival of the human race through romantic coupling?

Hondo is a dispatch rider for the United States Cavalry, itself the symbol of emerging order in a nascent Arizona Territory. Angie is a settler born in the West, and her son is thus a second-generation Western pioneer.  Angie Lowe and Johnny have a large natural reservoir of water, its own stark symbol in an arid, hot land. The Lowes have been on good terms with the Apache, but now the Apache have risen up under Vittorio, provoked by White violations of treaty. Angie prefers to stay in place, relying on her personally good terms with the Indians. Hondo having lost his horse, accompanied by a brush collie named Sam and carrying his horse’s saddle and a Winchester rifle, moves heavily down toward the pioneer cabin and its inviting pond.

Hondo makes himself useful to Angie in exchange for a new, unbroken horse. He reports at the fort the massacre of a full troop of cavalry by the now-renegade Apache. On the way back to the Lowe homestead, he is ambushed and eventually kills not only Apache but also Ed Lowe, Angie’s estranged husband. Hondo is captured by the Apache, tortured, allowed to fight for his life (and to get stabbed in the battle) against a warrior whose brother he earlier killed. He is carried unconscious to the Lowe homestead and cast at Angie’s feet with Vittorio’s question “Is this your man?”

Ultimately, the Cavalry arrives, leaves in pursuit of the Apache, returns bloodied but having killed Vittorio. Hondo takes charge of the shaken troopers, organizes their escorting what few settlers have been able to make it out of harm’s way. They are overtaken by the Apache and relentlessly attacked until Hondo kills the new war leader.

Throughout, it has been clear that Angie is physically attracted to Hondo despite her estranged marriage. Hondo is, like most Wayne heroes, a detached and isolated figure, but he is consistently attentive and helpful in every way, including oddly with Vittorio’s authority, becoming a surrogate father for Johnny.

Hondo like most Westerns is long on action. Given Wayne isolation and stern disapproval of excess words or ideas, Hondo is if anything rather at an extreme of the taciturn Western. For meaning, beginning with meaning of the comedic line, we need to give our attention to other forms of communication than words—what Aristotle called “appropriate embellishments” to tragedic language itself.

We need to feel and appreciate the vastness and harshness of the natural setting. We must recognize the independence and simultaneous loyalty of Sam, the dog. We need to recognize the frequently emphasized Winchester as “the gun that won the West,” simple, efficient, accurate, and adapted to the West.

And the kind of success and survival that we witness as the comedic line for Hondo is summed up in the weapon, the dog, and the arid land. It is the success of simplicity, efficiency, accuracy, and adaptation, and grit (“stick-to-it-iveness,” persevering endurance)—a success dependent on self-reliance and simultaneously on loyalty. It is a success which asks almost nothing from the environment and meets that environment with a consistent building adaptation to the challenges and constraints imposed by nature and reality.

If Hondo is not just a Western and a Comedy but also a Romantic Comedy,  the kind of romance and marriage that it envisions as central to pioneer success is fundamentally related to this general sense of pioneer survival, that is successful romance is seen as asking very little, continually adapting to what the environment allows, greatly restrained in its desires and demands.

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The Special Feel of Hondo: Special language

We turn then to the Special Language of Romantic Comedy, the language of Mystery, Reason, Complementarity, and Commitment.

Which of the four Romantic Comedy language interests is most prevalent in Hondo?  Like most John Wayne movies, Commitment tends to win out, beginning with everything about Wayne, the way he carries himself, the way he says what (often) little he has to say.

The opening scene of Hondo—Wayne trudging toward water with his saddle, gun, and dog—is pictorial language. It recalls Aristotle’s point that language includes all appropriate concomitants to the language of the script.  Language speaks.  But a great deal else speaks in theatre and in film as well.

In a live-stage production of a theatre script, this additional communication of costume, make-up, lighting, staging, as well as the props actors carry, their gestures and carriage, their general voice quality and their particular emphasis of individual lines—all these are often discounted in criticism because they vary from production to production. 

But in film criticism, every nuance of any of these other ways of communicating is unvarying. Instead of being easily dismissed as mere embellishments of a particular production, they become definitively permanent elements of the total work of art and of both its momentary and its summational import.

So Wayne trudging in carries meaning.  He is trudging, but the trudging itself is determined, self-reliant, committed. The dog at his side is committed to the same journey, and we later find out, is committed to Wayne without relying on him even for his daily rations.

The Winchester rifle is “the gun that won the West,” and that phrase speaks to the general pioneer Commitment to tame an alien land. And the land itself—arid, hot, uninviting—simply intensifies the Commitment involved.

When Hondo does get a chance to speak, he speaks in no-nonsense basic axioms that represent his life Commitments. Many of his comments boil down to letting people be what they intend to be. The repetition itself speaks to Hondo’s firm Commitment not to have things his way, but to let everyone live in their own best lights.

9

A very great deal more could be said about Wayne’s enactment of Hondo.  But we must move on, because no one actor or character can define a film-wide emphasis within Special Language. If Special Language is special, it is special in being pervasive as well.

It is, therefore, important to notice Johnny, small as he is, as a key center of special Commitment language. Johnny’s willingness to take on a whole band of Apache warriors in defense of his mother creates a remarkable scene, perhaps especially remarkable for the band’s laughter when the brave who is accosting Johnny recoils as Johnny fires the family revolver at him.

From a humor standpoint, what is most remarkable is that the scene is not at all funny, and the warriors’ laughter thus underscores the seriousness of the situation and the serious Commitment.

That Commitment is then highlighted in Vittorio’s respectful remarks about Johnny and then further communicated in the Commitment act of making him a blood brother with an Apache name.  Throughout the rest of Vittorio’s life as presented in the movie, Vittorio’s Commitment and Johnny’s Commitment are repeatedly demonstrated and highlighted. It is, after all Vittorio’s Commitment to Johnny that secures Hondo’s release from a torturing death and then secures his being delivered, stabbed, at Angie’s and Johnny’s feet.

The cavalry, as in all John Wayne movies, is its own constant insistence on Commitment. Here in Hondo, that Commitment is particularly remarked in the young lieutenant’s refusal to accept the advice of far more experienced frontier soldiers and instead to insist on moving his men forward against Vittorio where they are virtually certain to be ambushed with high casualties. 

Even more impressive is the special language of Ed Lowe criticizing the cavalry for not doing enough to protect him and his property, followed by Hondo bringing out the pennant of Troop C, which we saw gallantly leaving the fort, never to return.  Ed Lowe is talking about Commitment, all the more remarkable because of his false argument about lack of Commitment.

Actions speaking much louder than words, there are too many details to mention individually of the young lieutenant’s troop, already badly mauled, but committed to doing everything in its power to stave off what looks to be an inevitable massacre.

Again, Hondo is a movie of very few words. It is nevertheless voluble, particularly with respect to Commitment. It is voluble precisely in its definitive use of appropriate supporting languages of gesture, attitude, nuance, and atmosphere. With examples everywhere in Hondo, we need not extend our consideration of the language of Commitment that permeates the film.

10

 

But what then is the second lead in Romantic Special Language? Is there a case for Reason—Judson as we have called it—Complementarity, or Mystery?

Of the three, Complementarity has the least to say for itself.  Neither Angie nor Hondo makes a case for Complementarity between themselves. She is an abandoned woman caught in the midst of an Indian war. He is a man of great and varied abilities but with very little sense of a definite direction in life. One doesn’t have to have read the opening lines of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to recognize this as one of the classic formulas for romance, without the slightest need for additional Complementarity. That Angie and Hondo are both available is Complementarity enough.

Complementarity, if it is a Special Language lead, should show up in more than the romantic couple. This “supporting” Special Language is also absent in Hondo. There is no Complementarity within the cavalry that becomes a subject of discourse, no Complementarity about Angie and her absent husband, Ed, no particular Complementarity between even Johnny and Angie that is noted in a language feature.

There is more to say in favor of Judson. Hondo is a man of few words, but he is also a man of definite opinions.  It is his judgment, for example, that dogs can smell Indians. And his judgment when pushed is backed by a reasonable idea about how a dog can be trained to such guarding abilities.  And even further, Hondo, who is part Indian and has lived among Indians, has a developed sense of smell himself and demonstrates that proficiency in everything he knows about Angie from her scent.

It is a nice scene for getting accustomed to Judson language.  But the scene is not centrally typical of the film as a whole.

We are then left with Mystery, and once we start thinking about it, we realize that Mystery is about as prevalent as Commitment. When asked about his Indian wife’s name, the normally taciturn Hondo argues that the name can’t be translated into English. There is a Mystery about it that precludes adequate translation.

And indeed, what is true for the Indian name seems to be repeatedly noted with respect to Indian culture in general. For example, John Ford includes silent cameos of Indian warriors applying war paint to their faces. The added detail is impressive of Ford’s artistry and his deep interest in the American Indians of the Southwest. But also, we here are again in the presence of Mystery. We now know how war paint can be applied. We have no idea why it is applied. And again, the language here is not spoken language but pictorial language, pictorial language that bespeaks Mystery.

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Ford often includes American Indians speaking Apache, without translation or even apparent meaning. And Hondo brings in the word “forever”—which certainly is the language of Commitment— but brings it up first as a word in Apache full of Mystery.

The blood brother relationship established before our eyes between Vittorio and Johnny is all the more mysterious for being watched in realistic formational detail. Through the rest of the movie, that Mystery is the wellspring for much of what happens.

Moreover, the American Indians are highly purposeful without being readily understandable. They may seem instead opaque, and thus mysterious.  Vittorio’s blood relationship motivation is, of course, a central example.  But so is his repeated insistence on identifying human behaviors with animals. The way a cougar and the way a coyote respond to pain is central to Vittorio’s thought processes, jarringly idiosyncratic and mysterious to Euro-American sensibilities.

The Apache mysteries of Hondo again are best symbolized in an unforgettable pictorial, Apaches walking their ponies away from battle, while seemingly still within rifle range, after the death of their leader.  Ford’s intense respect for Indian culture and his unrivaled abilities to summarize complex realities in the language of pictorial images here again are on exquisite display. Pushing Ford’s artistic sense even further, there is a great Mystery in how entirely of one mind the war band seems to be in all its motivation and reactions.

The Apache mysteries are “supporting” language expressions, surrounding but clearly separate from the Angie-Hondo romantic interest.  In the Angie-Hondo scenes, the mysterious in language is often the Mystery of what has been left out. Hondo, for example, claims that there is a great deal in Angie that reminds him of his dead Native-American wife. To us as audience, as well as to Angie, that has to be a mysterious statement, given that Angie is a very flaxen, curly blond and Hondo’s wife is clearly to be envisaged as having black straight hair. Hondo could resolve the Mystery, but of course he leaves it at that. And left that way, it provides a sense of the mysterious in his feelings toward Angie as well.

Sam the dog has a language all his own, an intelligent body language of Commitment and independence intermixed. All of which are naturally attractive to Johnny, but again Hondo mysteriously indicates that Sam is not to be thought of as a pet, and Sam routinely reinforces the point and its Mystery by snarling and baring his teeth.

And then, of course there are the central Mysteries of Angie and Hondo, perhaps apparent in the reverse order. There is after all something mysterious in a man trudging down a desert slope carrying a saddle and rifle and half-accompanied by a half-wild dog.  And many of the mysteries involved are never seriously resolved, starting with what happened to the horse?

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There are Mysteries of Hondo’s mixed-blood heritage, and there are Mysteries of his direction in life now as well as in his past and destined future in San Demas, California. The taciturnity of the movie generally guarantees the proliferation of such Mysteries.

Similarly, Angie’s Mysteries begin with her origins. She claims to have been born in the West, probably on the very homestead where we meet her. But Angie is perhaps 30 years old, and the date of the action is sometime in the Grant Administration, let’s guess 1873. That puts Angie’s birth in Arizona in 1843, possibly before. In any case, it is a birth in Mexican Arizona, before the Mexican American War. Certainly, there is a story there important to Angie’s character and outlook. It is left entirely unexamined. 

Similarly mysterious, Angie claims she has thoroughly accepted herself as a homely woman. Yet that clearly is not how Hondo sees her or how we as audience are made to feel about her.

Many of these Mysteries can be argued to represent primitive narrative talent. But such an argument is fundamentally misguided. The mysterious taciturnity or the taciturn Mystery of Hondo is a consistent artistic feature, reflecting perhaps the sense that people on the frontier are not there to understand or to explain themselves fully but rather to put all their energies into building what has never been.

People without a past are often the best builders of the future. Perhaps the guiding symbol of the Mystery involved here is Buffalo, a man who for years has built the frontier in its most dangerous confrontations, but who to Hondo doesn’t have a last name.

 Mystery then is a clear if secondary lead in the Special Language interests of Hondo, particularly interesting in how many of these Mysteries are intimately involved with the taciturn speech patterns of the work as a whole. Language, in other words, speaks in its absences as well as in its stylistic articulations.

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Mystery and Commitment as Leads in Special Language

The full work of nominating Special Language leads and even of proving the lesser character of alternative possible language interests is only a laborious analysis toward a conclusion about the texture or tone of the work as a whole. What texture or feel does the emphatic combination of Mystery and Commitment engender?

We have already answered this question in providing rubrics for the six possible combinations of major Romantic Comedy Special Language. The six possible textures of language are, again, Appropriate, Dutiful, Elevated, Destined, Magnetic, and Grounded.

It is instructive to approach our final conclusion rather slowly. Hondo arguably emphasizes Commitment above all else. If Commitment is a lead, then there are only three possible textures available: Grounded, Dutiful, and Destined. All three are to some extent represented in the feel or texture of Hondo.

Commitment Textures

The dog, Sam, again, is a central symbol of the dutiful, dutiful unto death itself. Hondo is dutiful in virtually everything, dutiful to the United States Cavalry, dutiful in accepting an unofficial commission to lead that cavalry when its officer has been incapacitated and when the fight seems utterly hopeless. He is also immediately dutiful without waiting for instructions when he appears at the Lowe homestead and immediately begins repairing things that Ed Lowe’s absence has let slip. And Angie is dutifully holding together the life her parents founded, including having a profound reluctance to leave Indian country even in the teeth of Indian wars. Duty has strong claims in Hondo.

And along with Duty, there are substantial claims for Groundedness.  Everything about Wayne’s portrayal of Hondo is grounded, grounded in firm opinions on which Hondo is betting his life without hesitation. And ultimately, it turns out that Angie has her own groundedness that needs to veto Hondo’s, substituting in the human needs for survival and relationship over the needs for honesty itself. The two positions are in unstable truce at the end of the film.

That leaves Destiny. There has been a sense from the beginning that Hondo and Angie are coupled together not by choice but by conspiring circumstance. Similarly, beyond personal choice, Hondo is later mandated by Vittorio to be father to Johnny. And Angie is forced by Vittorio’s question, “Is this your man?” to accept the Destiny that indeed he is.  Destiny seems to reverse the normal male-female roles as Angie declares her love for Hondo without nuance or hesitation just as the two are again confronted by Vittorio in the night.

Vittorio’s centrality to so much of what is destined forces us to recognize him ultimately as a symbol of Destiny itself. And indeed, Vittorio is such a symbol even in his death, the symbol of the changing of the guard in the Southwest to American from Native American. And as that symbol, Vittorio also symbolizes the Native American as vilified during the historic changing-of-the-guard era but enshrined as a noble figure in the history of the Southwest world.

Vittorio’s name itself is Hispanic, not Apache. Destiny beyond personal choice has it so. The name is ironic as well, bespeaking the Southwestern Destiny to have Hispanic background, a tragic present, and yet a destined future victory, vindication, and respect for Apache nobility.

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Mystery Textures

The fact that all the Commitment textures have importance in Hondo is its own validation of the Special Language quadrilateral we have assigned to Romantic Special Language.

But let us then also consider the Mystery Textures: Elevated, Destined, Magnetic.

Again, all these textures have important representations in Hondo. Together with the three Commitment Textures, they account for five of the six Textural possibilities. 

A Quick and Necessary Aside

The only texture without either Mystery or Commitment is Appropriate. There is nothing Appropriate about the Hondo world; it is a world in chaotic becoming.

White attitudes toward Native Americans are inappropriate and likely self-servingly deceitful.

Hondo’s and Vittorio’s attitudes toward Johnny are inappropriate, symbolized in Hondo unsympathetically throwing Johnny in the pond to learn how to swim.  Parents and mentors are assumed to be caring. The harsh realities of an emerging Southwest have to ignore the touchy-feely proprieties in order to prepare a destined life of second-generation pioneer for its destined hardships.

Angie’s open courting of Hondo in an unabashed admission of love is inappropriate to all the standards of decorous romance. Her falling for Hondo when she is a married woman has its own clearly inappropriate character.

Ed Lowe’s attitudes toward the cavalry are revolting, not just inappropriate. His general character, including his death, is consistently inappropriate. His name itself, Edward or “wealthy defender” is regally inappropriate. The visual symbol of that inappropriateness, incidentally, is precisely his death, in which he reaches for a revolver, certainly the preferred lithe weapon at close quarters, only to be shot dead by a rifle, shot from the hip.

Appropriate, then, of our six possible textures of Romantic Comedy Special Language is the most certainly excluded as texture for Hondo.

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Choosing Between the Mystery Textures: Magnetic, Destined, Elevated

There’s obvious magnetism between Hondo and Sam from the opening scene to Sam’s death on guard in a fierce storm. Dogs are man’s best friend, and men earn their keep by keeping their dogs fed. Absolutely none of this is germane to the Magnetic relationship between Sam and Hondo.

There’s a Magnetic attraction between Angie and Hondo, not at all surprising in the traditions of Romantic Comedy.

There’s a Magnetic attraction between Angie and the Apache, neighbors in a mysterious relationship not easily negated by general war.

There’s a Magnetic attraction that makes Vittorio Johnny’s blood brother.

There’s a Magnetic attraction that leads the lieutenant to follow orders into the jaws of death, and a Magnetic attraction that has made Buffalo ready from his birth onward for the impossible, improbable, and daring.

And there’s an equally Magnetic repulsion between Ed Lowe and the forces building a new Southwest.

If there are strong senses of the Magnetic in Hondo, there are also strong senses of the Elevated. As already emphasized, there is a noble elevation in virtually everything Apache, a unity and noble separateness in their attitudes and approach to every exigency, often jarringly obvious against the individualism of the new American interlopers. And there is an Elevated harshness and otherness in the semi-desert landscape, and elevation in its perturbations of dust storms and torrential rain.

But virtually all these textures can also be subsumed within Destined.  Vittorio is destined to die an outlaw and to live as a noble exemplar in history. Lowe is destined for a bad end to a bad life. Johnny is destined to be a grown warrior as he was a little warrior, watched over by noble mentor warriors. And Angie and Hondo are destined for each other, yes, but also for guiding the growth of the young warrior. Moreover, they are destined for San Demas, San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles County, California.

Unusual—and mysterious—isn’t it, to know so precisely where the hero and heroine are destined to live?

Let’s put it another way. They are destined to live in San Demas, the city of the Penitent Thief crucified beside Christ, in the County of the Angels, and especially in the valley of the angel announcing the birth of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace available to all.

Accompanied by God is Grace (the meaning of John).

It is an apt destination for people who’ve had to fight to survive but whose instincts have been to establish peace and understanding, with a clear recognition that a “white hats, black hats” mentality fails to take account of everyone’s feet of clay.

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Special Language Summarized

Hondo ‘s Special Language is more often the language of action, setting, gesture, tone, even make-up and costuming rather than direct speech act. It is a taciturn movie, but what is spoken supports the appropriate embellishment in these other theatre arts, and the embellishments support the Special if terse spoken word.

That Special Language is anticipatable Special Language not of funny, light comedy, but of often-serious Romantic Comedy. In Hondo’s case, John Ford’s major respect and sympathy for Southwest Indians guarantees a quite unfunny, serious comedic tone.

Commitment and Mystery are two of the four staple languages of Romantic Comedy, at least of Romantic Comedy (A) as defined above. And they are the two overpowering lead Special Language features in Hondo. Each can be profitably analyzed in criticism for itself.

But the combination of the two, the synthesis of two leads is even more profitable.  Synthetically, Commitment and Mystery taken together have a strong likelihood of creating a sense of the Destined, a sense which is multiply important for any sensitive appreciation of Hondo.

The central couple are destined to union and to San Demas, California. But equally true, the cavalry is destined to fulfill its duty, to take the casualties, and to be underappreciated everywhere and often entirely slandered particularly by the most disreputable civilians in the West. The Apache are destined to lose and to lose most when major-force help arrives. Johnny is destined to grow up with the survival talents befitting a man who has long been blood brother to a great chief. And the land will remain its demanding and often very hazardous self, always strongly reasserting itself at the edge of town. Arizona is destined to join with the other states, itself and yet part of a greater federated whole. And as Arizona moves into that future, part of what makes it itself will be an increasing recognition of the nobility of the native people who were there long before.

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Nuance rather than Straightjacket

If there is an exception to this summation of Special Language in Hondo as Destined, the analysis above suggests that we are giving short-shrift to Magnetic as one of the Mystery Special Language synthetics. The Magnetic is very strong throughout Hondo, and that strength is quite seamless between magnetism of the central couple and magnetism of all other supporting elements of the romantic action. Given this strength, we might justifiably modify the  conclusion that Destined is the central texture of Hondo to the more nuanced idea that the texture is, in fact, a texture of Magnetic Destiny. 

Taking this nuancing seriously suggests that the Magnetic is, in fact, a general characteristic of American pioneering. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock are clearly Magnetic, the boatmen of the pioneer Mississippi like Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim are Magnetic, the pioneers of the northern prairies in Laura Ingalls Wilder, O. E. Rolvaag, and Willa Cather are Magnetic.  And first-generation immigrant pioneers into American society in every generation have been Magnetic. The Final Frontier of John F. Kennedy suggests how wrenching it has been for America to tear itself from a Magnetic pioneer past.

Other Forms in Romantic Comedy: Impediments to the Romantic Line

Aristotle’s original discussion of dramatic genre in the Poetics considers in depth a tragedic line of action. But that seminal definition does not go on to a consideration of other lines of action that run as the woof to the tragedic line’s warp. Athenian theatre by rule limited the number of actors, essentially eliminating much of the possibility for such woof in Attic dramatic structure.  The history of theatre since has been to confirm Robert Frost’s understanding that literary interest normally requires tension between warp and woof elements.

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So, what are the Impediments present in Hondo?  We have already posited that for Romantic Comedy, the primary Other Forms are Prior Commitment, Incompatibility, Antipathy, and the World generally in seeming inherent opposition. It is normally much easier (because much more obvious) to come to quick conclusions about Other Forms running counter to the comedic line than to come to conclusions about Special Language. That quickness and relative ease do not lessen the importance of Other Forms for a sensitive appreciation of the work as a whole with its unique comedic import.

If we start with the romantic couple in Hondo, we can quickly eliminate Antipathy as one of the Other Forms. There is no Antipathy discernible between Angie and Hondo. Rather there is an instinctive immediate respect and attraction. 

Similarly, we can immediately dismiss Incompatibility. Far from being Incompatible, Hondo immediately makes himself the next thing to indispensable as he forges horseshoes, shoes horses, and the like. Angie similarly is the indispensable provider of water simply as proprietor of the homestead but is quickly also the woman’s touch that Hondo has clearly done without at considerable inconvenience. We have every reason to feel that this Compatibility will be consistently maintained in San Demas.

That leaves Prior Commitment and the World. Both are obvious, strong impediments to the comedic line. The Prior Commitments of Angie being married and being the mother of a young boy are too obvious to be belabored. Hondo’s Prior Commitments are a little more subtle, but they include commitments to Sam, commitments to a good number of survival maxims like “hate lies,” and “people will do what they want to do” which limit Hondo even as they give him extraordinary power. Ultimately, his Prior Commitment to “don’t lie” is within a hair’s breadth of making everything impossible romantically. Hondo is also priorly committed to an ill-defined relationship to the cavalry and to its mission in Arizona. From there we can move on to more subtle Prior Commitments, often vaguely defined, as for example Angie’s obvious commitment to remaining on the homestead even in the midst of war. Navigating these Prior Commitments is a large part of the romantic interest of the film.

We should note, however, that there are other Prior Commitments than the immediate romantic Impediments. We see the formation of a Prior Commitment as blood brothers between Vittorio and Johnny early in the film. We see Vittorio’s fairly early Commitment of Hondo as surrogate mentor to Johnny. We even see Ed Lowe’s thoroughly misguided Commitment to defending his “rights” as a citizen and property holder.  And we see the young lieutenant’s Prior Commitment to his military education endangering the lives of many. He will either die in the attempt or learn from older soldiers how to navigate this Commitment.

The World—outside forces treated as unconscious and uncaring but hostile nevertheless (of which dust storm and torrential rain are both apt symbols)—also moves consistently to block the Destined union of the hero and heroine. The World has created war where there had been a good-faith peace. The World also brings constant challenges to survival simply at subsistence levels and certainly among the exigencies of war. The World brings Hondo and Ed Lowe into the same saloon, and the World allows a brand on Hondo’s horse to prompt Lowe pursuing him as a horse thief.

Briefly then but definitively, Prior Commitments and the World are the lead impediments blocking the romantic line but also reinforced in other non-romantically centered aspects of the film.

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The Synthesis of Prior Commitment and World

It is profitable to analyze separately these two lead Impediments, Prior Commitment and the World. But a synthetic understanding is probably even more centrally important. What texture or tone does the combination of Prior Commitment and World engender for the film as a whole?

Above, we have already answered this question in terms of general literary theory.  In general theory, the Impediments quadrilateral of Romantic Comedy (at least of the A variant) yields six pairs of leads and six basic textures suggested by rubric. The six possible rubrics again are Prohibited, Obstructed, Star-crossed, Embattled, Ill-Advised, and Pre-judged.

The specific combination of Prior Commitment and World yields a synthetic texture of Star-Crossed.

For Hondo, this probably comes as something of a surprise because so many of the rubrics seem to be applicable, and Star-crossed has been ill-defined since Shakespeare used it in Romeo and Juliet.

Aren’t Hondo and Angie Embattled? Of course, they are, and at the same time, they are characterized by an attempt not to be. In themselves, they would be neutral, not combatant.

Aren’t they Prohibited? Of course, they are, by Angie’s previous marriage and Hondo’s commitments to the cavalry. But Angie’s husband is killed rather early on, though admittedly by the man she loves. Hondo goes from message carrier and scout to unofficial leader of a desperate mobile defense. If by any chance Angie and Hondo both happen to survive this fatal encounter, there seems no prohibition to Hondo retiring as married hero to San Demas.

Aren’t they Ill-advised? They probably would be if there were anyone around to advise them. They’ve known each other hardly at all, both have Prior Commitments, and one Judgment or Reason after another could be brought forward to baulk them. But there just isn’t anyone there to bring such Judson forward.

Aren’t they Pre-judged?  They probably would be, but again there aren’t judges around to enter into judgment.

Aren’t they Obstructed? Clearly fighting a mobile defense action against heavy odds does get in the way of traditional romance. But the romantic decisions of union have already been reached before the mobile defense begins.

On the other hand, they are Star-crossed with destinies seemingly already decided in divergent directions. And yet, we’ve already argued that they are destined for one another and for San Demas together. 

Destiny, in short, is centrally important to Special Language characteristics and equally at stake in the kind of opposition that the romance entails. In a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet, Star-crossed normally ends in isolation and death. In Comedy, Destiny, even Star-crossed Destiny, has the ability, almost the inexplicable ability, to right itself, almost always in mysterious ways, and again we are back to the coincidence of Special Language and Impediment form concerns.

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Singular Spirit in Hondo

When we turn to Spirit, we are no longer discussing a synthetic character created by a blending of two spirits, but rather the character of only analytic spirit. This deviation is not capricious.

Spirits do not easily coexist or cooperate with one another.  Where they do, it is worth noting as significant.  But the tendency is to think that they coexist and cooperate when really they are struggling for dominance and haven’t gotten to the conclusion of that dubious battle yet.  Spirit is an aspect of the work as a whole, and it cannot be analyzed without looking at a completed whole. Spirits are contra-distinctive once all the facts are in.

We can see these general principles rather clearly demonstrated in Hondo.  The four Romantic Spirits are Trust, Respect, Submission, and Meant for Each Other.

A cursory judgment looking only at the central romantic couple in Hondo‘s case would probably conclude that there was some justification for each of the four Spirit possibilities. For example, we have argued that Special Language creates a texture of Destined. Isn’t Destined closely related to Made for Each Other?

We have noted that Hondo immediately sets himself about rectifying deficiencies in the Lowe homestead, taking on a servant’s role and heart. And Angie quickly moves from independent pioneer woman to woman with a woman’s care and touch. Isn’t that emblematic of Submission in relationship?

Trust is harder to come by. After all, Angie does pull a gun on Hondo fairly early on. But she also lets herself be disarmed, and in agreeing that Hondo is “her man,” isn’t she deciding to trust him with a very great deal?

Similarly, Hondo’s entire attitude and bearing from the time he trudges down the hill with saddle, rifle, and dog is entirely respectful, including Respect that keeps its distance both physically and psychologically.  When Angie reads that the rifle was, in fact, a regional prize, she is put off by Hondo’s reputation as a gunman, but she has every reason in her subsequent reactions to treat Hondo with awed Respect in a society that automatically respects physical bravery and prowess.

But, again, Spirit is not casually ascribed or identified.  One can expect Spirits to contend, to have arguments in their favor. And one can expect that finally one Spirit or another has to achieve dominance. Quite typically, that dominance is achieved because of supporting evidence outside the romantic central couple. In other words, dominance is achieved from the totality of the dramatic work, not from the starred center.

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Let’s then look around at more peripheral elements of the film. And let’s start with the young lieutenant who will get some of his men killed and himself wounded. The lieutenant can certainly be trusted to carry out his orders to the letter. But he can’t be trusted to have common sense about the Arizona Territory and its military demands. He can be respected for his bravery, but faulted for his judgment. He is clearly in Submission to his superior’s orders, but he is not in Submission to advice from experience. It is not clear that he was Made to be a soldier. 

So Spirit is something of a mixed bag for the lieutenant. But if we have to carry away something, it is hard not to deeply respect a man who has known from the beginning that he is under orders often given far away and without a real understanding of the personal dangers and responsibilities of the officer on the front line.

At another extreme, let’s again focus on Sam. Sam clearly respects Hondo, but does Sam trust Hondo? He certainly doesn’t trust Hondo to feed him or to give him any affection. Is Sam Made for Hondo or Hondo Made for Sam? That’s rather unclear also.  Hondo and Sam are symbiotic; they work together for mutual survival. Being the dog, Sam is also the expendable. Sam’s acceptance of that role is perhaps some form of Submission. But maybe expendability is simply realism coupled with the fact that a dog like Sam doesn’t stay in a house. Complexities aside, Sam’s Respect for Hondo—and Hondo’s Respect for Sam are implicit and central as long as both of them are alive.

Then there is Johnny. Johnny is most certainly not a good symbol for Submission, taking on if necessary a whole war party rather than allowing his mother to be mistreated. Johnny like other pioneer kids has learned to be alone, to go about his own business, to look after himself. Independence could be his middle name. But that’s rather different from being Made for the semi-desert, which always maintains its sense of separate otherness.  And Johnny’s brave independence in many ways allows him to start life without trust and without respect. Nevertheless, it is clear that Johnny is a respectful child to his mother, that he quickly comes to respect Hondo, that he is challenged to respect Vittorio and to respectfully identify himself with the Apache leader. Respect for Johnny is an existential choice.  Hondo portrays him choosing Respect and defining himself.

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Ed Lowe doesn’t at all seem to be Made for anyone else. It seems he doesn’t trust anyone to be anything other than bad, whether we are talking his view of the cavalry, its commanding officer, Sam, or Hondo. For a small role, Ed Lowe makes a big splash, one of solid dissonance. Along with lack of trust, he is an exemplar of lack of Respect. And submitting to anyone or anything seems to be entirely out of the question.

So, no, Ed Lowe doesn’t directly help build any Spirit. Indirectly, as the thorough no-good, he can be thought to build any of the four Spirits by being the exemplar of what not to be.

But it is difficult to argue that he builds any one of the Spirits more than the others, unless it is by his antithetic nature to Respect, where he seems perhaps particularly obnoxious. His indecent death perhaps focuses on his lack of Respect for a man who only moments before has been on his side in a deadly struggle.

Ultimately, as so often in a John Wayne Western, there is the cavalry and its commanding officer. Especially in light of Ed Lowe’s disreputable demands, the cavalry are both trustworthy and eminently respectable for their commitment to duty. The pennant of Troop C is perhaps the abiding symbol of that trustworthiness and even more of the Respect that is so deserved and so easily neglected by Ed Lowe.

So, as we look around at more peripheral aspects of the film, we find the contention for dominance among Spirits rather clear. And at least in this presentation, it is increasingly clear that Respect is always at stake and normally has one or more powerful arguments in its favor.

So we’ll call it for Respect as the dominant Spirit of Hondo, not that the other three Spirits are neglected.

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Putting it all together

It has not been hard to put together an extended discussion of Hondo in terms of aspects of a primary definition of Romantic Comedy. Perhaps this comes as something of a surprise to some readers who always thought of the film as a Western or even as Shoot-‘em-up. For those who can only think of Comedy in connection with laughter, considering Hondo to be within Comedy at all will be a severe stretch. But we now have put together Hondo, the Western, Comedy, and Romantic Comedy.

Even with that combination of generic identifications, we have missed something. Hondo is also a very dark Comedy, a Comedy that moves to faith in success and survival, yes, but very importantly in Hondo as in all dark Comedy, also moves to substantial on-going costs to be paid throughout a virtual future beyond the final scene and beyond the closing credits.  (For a fuller discussion of dark or Sombre Comedy see A Formal Theory of Sombre Comedy.”)

For indeed, Hondo does have a very definite virtual future, which we have emphasized with repeated references to San Demas, California and frequent emphasis on Johnny, ultimately the symbol of the pioneer Western child destined to grow up in a fast-changing Americanized world.  Johnny will live through great changes of the West, thoroughly connected with the East in three continental railroads, will probably live to see the horse replaced by the Model-T Ford, may quite easily live through the First World War and perhaps have a son fighting or dying in France. And he will be a builder of a Western society, for good, for ill, or for both.

These are recognized historical realities of the United States.

But much more certainly growing out of the film itself is the sense of ongoing costs in the future. Johnny will grow up blood brother to a noble Indian chief killed in rebellion against the United States. He will grow up with a respected, probably loved foster father—indebted to him for a very great deal—but who is also the killer of his real father. And he will grow up with a more or less articulated understanding that his real father led a bad life leading to a bad death.  This is a considerable mortgage on a future as yet totally virtual as the film ends.

And Hondo is also very dark because it celebrates the Native American past in Arizona, a way of life that had to end and did end tragically, announced virtually by the film itself in a prophesied retribution of major-force cavalry counter-measures. As Hondo says, “It was a good way of life.”  It was the life of noble people.

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So generically, Hondo is dark, Romantic, Western Comedy. That’s a lot to come out of genre identification.

But working from a complete definition of Romantic Comedy—at least Romantic Comedy (A)—we have said more. We have limited Hondo to one of six potential textures of Special Language: Destined; one of six potential textures of Opposing Forms: Star-crossed; and to one of four potential Spirits: Respect.

For those with a mathematical inclination, that means that we have identified 6 x 6 x 4 separate possible “feels” for Romantic Comedy (A)—144 separately describable feels—and we have argued for Hondo being exactly 1 of those 144 separate possibilities.

And using theory for elucidation but not as a straightjacket, we have come to allow the Magnetic as an ever-ready secondary language texture along with Destined as the primary language texture of the film. Call it Magnetic Destiny.

Summarily then, Hondo is a Romantic Comedy, not just a comedy with a romantic lead or some romantic theme to entice audience interest. It is a patterned action expressing a faith in human success and survival premised in the ability of the race to establish and maintain couples for the propagation of the race.

Within that comedic line, Hondo’s Special Language (which is strongly supported by non-verbal but communicational, appropriate embellishment from all the theatre arts) has clearly dominant lead elements of focus on Commitment and on Mystery. The patterned action thus expresses faith in success and survival heavily leaning on and accepting as necessary both Commitment and Mystery. Synthetically, Commitment and Mystery suggest Destined.

Moreover, the patterned action recognizes countervailing forces, forces that challenge finally the faith in human success and survival. But as a full Comedy with full Comedic Import, Hondo both recognizes the World and Prior Commitments as great challenges and simultaneously asserts a faith that humanity will overcome both. Synthetically, the World and Prior Commitment suggest supernatural malignant Opposition—hence, Star-crossed.

And, at the final curtain though perhaps available to the audience only after letting the film “sink in” (maybe for quite a while), Hondo expresses this faith within a dominant Spirit of Respect, a respect that doesn’t just stop with the couple’s Respect for each other, but extends to the Apache and to the cavalry that opposes them; that extends to Respect for an arid, semi-desert, harsh land and harsh elements. And that extends to a Respect for the Southwest’s noble Indian past alongside the Southwest’s future within a federal American union and for the continuing work of a second pioneer generation in making that integration possible.

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Articulated “Feel”

Put as succinctly as possible, Hondo advocates that Magnetic Destiny, within a Spirit of Respect is competent to overcome Star-crossed Impediments. Put thusly, Hondo represents a very great and often celebrated American theme, for which see  A Majority of One (film,1961, adapted from a play by Leonard Spigelgass) and Anne Nichols’ 1922 Broadway play Abie’s Irish Rose.

But how does all this, put together, “feel” for the work as a whole? 

In light of generations of responses to the film and its genres, we’d suggest that Hondo has the feel of a great, unprecedented, needed-to-be enshrined moment of history (the basic impetus of the Western as a genre) in which ordinary people became extraordinary magnetic pioneers building something unseen and undefinable and yet majestic and destined and subsuming all the struggles with nature and with one another,  in the face of implacable, superlative, Star-crossed oppositions, and emphasizing the power of  destined, respectful,  practical, independent and resourceful love and peaceability in getting there.

It is the feel of sublime, undeviating, indominable inevitability.

Final caveat

Hondo is a quite complete, self-confident, and often intricate example of film art in its golden years with one of its preeminent artistic directors as well as with its preeminent Western actor. The film, along with John Ford/John Wayne films generally, has received enormous respect from American audiences, now extending into several generations.

But, as ITCHS has made articulate over and over again in considering how great works fit specific generic descriptions, in the final analysis, individuals have the right to be impressed but also have the right to be totally unimpressed by what the film has communicated.

In the ‘60’s, a great many students particularly at America’s most prestigious and elite colleges and universities, came to higher education with outright contempt for John Wayne and Westerns generally. A seemingly pervasive sense was that Westerns were only cowboy-and Indian shoot-‘em-up extensions of Randy Rides Alone and other primitive early experiments in the Western as a film genre.

Today, a great many college students may feel equally compelled to disdain the comedic message of Hondo. Hondo is a consistent, talented, influential work of art. Nevertheless, especially if the audience under consideration has an antithetic approach to American realities from those John Ford directed into Hondo, there is no requirement for such an audience to like or appreciate Hondo.

Dissenting reactions, such as these, are the right of any individual in the face of artistic import.

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See also Stagecoach, John Ford, and Redemption Comedy

 

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