Hondo (1953): A Western with Dimension

“…a long time ago, I made me a rule. I let people do what they want to do.”

I’m always surprised how many John Wayne films I’ve never seen. Not that seeing the young man playing Singin’ Sandy warbling “A Cowboy’s Song of Fate” in Riders of Destiny (1933) is going to enlighten me much about his evolution as an actor, though that and other minor motion pictures such as The Starpacker (1934), and  Randy Rides Alone (1934) do reveal how lithe, genuine and–forgive me, hardcore fans–artlessly sweet the actor appeared to be, even in barely B level programmers of his apprentice years on the screen, after his initial lead in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930). It’s still fun to discover something new about the development of this iconic and familiar Homeric figure–even when he was not working for image makers John Ford or Howard Hawks. Somehow, over the years I’ve missed seeing Hondo (1953), which starred this day’s birthday boy, John Wayne, who arrived on earth 103 years ago today on May 26th, 1907.

The movie tells a relatively simple story. After a brief glimpse of a man on horseback crossing a parched landscape on horseback behind the credits, we first meet Hondo (Wayne) on foot, carrying a saddle and a rifle, reminiscent of the actor’s earlier appearance in his breakthrough performance as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939). He is loping across a barren landscape accompanied by a feral, mangy looking dog named Sam, an apparent Border Collie mix who bears a painful-looking scar across his forehead, perhaps symbolizing his owners own ferocious autonomy. (This may be one of the few films where the canine featured player, who was trained by Lassie’s mentor, Rudd Weatherwax, had to have makeup applied and his coat matted up before shooting).  That landscape, which looks as though it could be from the beginning or the end of time, is described by L’Amour as “a far, lost land, a land of beige-gray silences and distances where the eye reached out farther and farther to lose itself finally against the sky, and where the only movement was the lazy swing of a remote buzzard.”

Mild Spoilers Below

A young boy (Lee Aaker), wearily going about his daily chores, is living with his mother (Geraldine Page) on their remote, hardscrabble ranch in the Southwest within an area where Apache warriors have recently clashed with newcomers. The estranged husband and absent father (Leo Gordon) has been gone for some time, though the woman, named Angie Lowe, has continued to eke out a subsistence living from the dusty ranch, refusing to acknowledge the tenuous nature of her and her six year old son’s position. The boy, squinting into that merciless sun, spies a distant figure walking toward the ranch. The boy’s reaction is one of barely concealed excitement, as though he is relieved and exhilarated to have something and someone different emerge out of nowhere into his rather limited universe. The woman’s reaction, after instructing her son that he is not to talk, is understandably more restrained, polite but hesitant and wary, carefully hiding a pistol within her apron’s folds, but with just a bit of natural curiosity and volubility sneaking into her rushed words to this bedraggled wanderer who asks to buy a horse from her and inhales a long draw of water from her well water.  Offering him a meal and shelter in her homestead, she fusses a bit but makes a point of mentioning several times that her husband is expected soon.

The spine of the film is laid in this first part of the story, evolving into a tentative romance between the man of the wilderness and the guarded woman, as characters whose customary sense of isolation and self-sufficiency in their harsh, sand-blasted desert world is up-ended by their encounters with one another. At the same time it is also an action movie, designed to engage our longing for the safely vicarious joys of a messy, realistic barroom brawl, a tense knife fight, the threat of gruesome torture, and, frankly, a ludicrously staged whoop-em-up, slam-bang ending between the Whites and the Native Americans. (Guess who wins?)

As a gap in my Wayne education, (or is it indoctrination?), my recent purchase of the DVD of this movie remedied my ignorance about this movie, which was to have a ripple effect on the actor’s later roles, including that of his greatest part as Ethan in The Searchers (1956), another man who emerged from the far horizon across a trackless waste. I usually enjoy this underrated actor’s work, but I was initially more motivated to buy this film by a continuing curiosity about that contradictory and gifted Hollywood character, director John Farrow. His noirish films, such as The Big Clock (1948), The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) and Alias, Nick Beal (1949) have always intrigued me. I suspect that Farrow, who was ultimately an employee of producer Wayne on this movie, may have been a bit intimidated by the overwhelming task of directing the actor, coordinating activity on the set while appeasing Warner Brothers and filming a story on a rough location in color, as well as using the ungainly process of the then “wave of the future” technique that an anxious Hollywood was latching onto as the studio revenues waned with the rise of television.

Shot in full color using ungainly camera equipment required for the arduous stereoscopic 3-D effects by cinematographers Robert Burks and Archie Stout for Warner Brothers, Hondo was one of the first films to be made under the auspices of the actor and his producing partner, Robert Fellows for their recently formed production company, (which eventually evolved into Batjac). While filming much of the movie on location in Camargo, Mexico and Utah beginning in June proved enormously arduous due to the searing heat, dust and occasional downpours in the remote area, the danger of breakdown by the special cameras required to achieve the 3-D effects in this movie were all constant strains, as was Warner’s apparently relentless efforts to pry one of the two precious cameras away from the production for work they wanted to complete back at the studio.

More significantly, due to many of the technical problems in the film and the restraint showed by the filmmakers, unlike guilty pleasures such as Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) or Gorilla-At-Large (1954), this movie uses the 3-D effects sparingly, though there are enough occasions when spears, arrows, knives, running horses and dead guys hurtle toward the camera to bring a chuckle or two.

Those who have seen Hondo in its original 3-D projection in a well-equipped theater have commented that the use of the effect gives depth to the scene rather than taking a viewer out of the experience. Ironically, after all this effort, the film premiered in November, 1953 in Houston, Texas, the 3-D print ran there, in LA and NY, in its intended format, before being pulled and replaced with a 2-D version, which is the one that can now be seen in a beautiful transfer on the DVD. Gretchen Wayne, the widow of John Wayne‘s eldest son, Michael Wayne, who ran Batjac (which owns the rights to this movie, among others), until his death in 2003, has made considerable efforts to bring this movie back to the public at several venues, and continues to work to make it possible to be preserved and appreciated, as described here in considerable detail. With the recent success of James Cameron‘s innovative use of advanced 3-D techniques in the film Avatar (2009), perhaps it will become more likely that Hondo can eventually be seen again in its original format.  All that being said, the use of 3-D is really irrelevant to the movie, which is good because of the story, the actors, and the setting.

After seeing Hondo, I am at a loss to detect much evidence of Farrow‘s fluid black and white camera of the forties, though his underlying interests in signs of corruption, redemption and transcendence in his characters is there, lending a spiritual element in this work as the characters open up to one another, almost against their wills. Despite all the extraneous issues surrounding this movie, the director evoked lively and subtle performances from each of the cast, from the leads to those, like Leo Gordon, Rodolfo Acosta, Paul Fix and Ward Bond bring texture and dramatic weight to their small roles, (look for a young, blonde James Arness in a small role as well).

Hondo, reflecting the shift in Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans on screen that had begun in Broken Arrow (1950-Delmer Daves), features Indian characters who are individuals, with sorrows and insights that give their characters considerable humanity. Based on the comments that Wayne‘s character makes in this movie, his character is actually a progressive thinking man whose nuanced views about Native Americans reflect a resigned acknowledgment that the Europeans cannot be stopped, as well as a deeper understanding of the values of the Apache warriors, led by “Vittorio,” who is very well played with a dignified grace by Australian actor Michael Pate. (This character may be based on the real life Chiricahua Apache tribe leader, Victorio (c. 1825-1880), a fascinating man who was active in southwestern New Mexico in the same time period as this story along with his sister Lozen, a woman warrior who rode with her brother).

Like Hondo, Vittorio is another desert wanderer who intrudes on the homestead of Angie and Johnny Lowe after Hondo leaves, expressing an interest in Angie Lowe’s untenable position in the wilderness and threatening her. He is impressed with her small son’s apparent courage when trying to protect his mother from Vittorio and his cohorts. Cutting his thumb and the boy’s as well, Vittorio joins their blood, re-christening him Small Warrior, making him a member of his family, the Moon Dog lodge. Promising to return soon, despite Angie’s hollow claim that her husband will soon return, the Native American, filled with a ferocious longing mingled with outrage

Hondo Lane is a fiercely independent man who has been raised by Indians and had an Indian wife whose memory he cherishes. He admires the natural, unfettered traditional way of life of the Native American, and though he is half white, he acknowledges the white man’s responsibility for breaking the treaty that sent Vittorio (Pate) rampaging across the desert, a doomed Apache with whom he feels a certain kinship.

Vittorio and Hondo had both been raised in a tradition and share certain values, loathing cowardice, lies and cunning for gain.  Interestingly, neither man has a living blood son, and, as Vittorio soon reveals, both seek to ally themselves with Angie Lowe and her son. Hondo performs practical chores around the ranch for Mrs. Lowe, making the boy a flute, and, in one scene that appears cruel and somewhat dangerous “teaches” the boy to swim by throwing him in a pond!

By contrast, Vittorio, whose sons have all been killed by whites, seems to acknowledge the underlying futility of his sporadic attacks of revenge, though he sees this young boy–and the possibility of bringing Angie into a marriage with one of his warriors–as a kind of gesture against despair. The Apache brings a horse to the boy, and, though he repeatedly says that the small family will be left in peace, his increasing impatience with her resolution to stay at the ranch alone becomes gradually more threatening. In contrast to him, the bluntly realistic Hondo has little use for anything but doing what is necessary to survive. This pragmatism has led him to align his future to the white race, despite his emotional ties to the past.

Hondo was based on a story by Louis L’Amour called “The Gift of Cochise” and adapted into a screenplay by one of Wayne’s best friends, James Edward Grant, (right) a man who could write dialogue that fit comfortably into the actor’s style.  The two also shared some very conservative views of the world, some of which crept into scripts such as Flying Leathernecks (1951) and Big Jim McClain (1952), but those ideological considerations did not significantly seem to have an overt impact on this movie’s story about the end of one civilization and the ascent of another.Grant, a tough Chicago-born Irish reporter whose writing career began in the raucous Prohibition era before coming to Hollywood as a screenwriter in the ’30s, may not have seemed to be a likely man to write a tender love story.  Yet in this movie and at least one other, Angel and the Badman (1947)–which Grant also directed–his ear for a poetic turn of phrase and his star’s ability to express tenderness as well as toughness were in ample evidence.

The pair of friends had previously made the memorable Angel and the Badman (1947) together with a script by Grant, who also directed Wayne and the warmly ethereal Gail Russell in one of the actor’s best on-screen pairings, other than his appearances with Maureen O’Hara. In this Western, Wayne appeared opposite the stage-trained Geraldine Page in one of her earliest performances on screen, whose flinty yet quiet, reflective manner in this role seems unique among the performances by John Wayne‘s often feisty and conventionally beautiful co-stars.

While reportedly having deliberately cast a relatively unknown actress in the role of Angie Lowe, on screen, Wayne and Page‘s apparent awkwardness with one another gives their tentative courtship an unusual edge. Off camera, the two actors apparently had little in common. Wayne, who eschewed over-analysis of what he did on camera for fifty years, hoping, he sometimes said, just to be regarded as a pro, may have regarded Page‘s intellectual credentials with suspicion, though her disagreement with his politics did not prevent her from expressing admiration for his abilities as an undeniably magnetic actor. (Wayne and others are quoted in some of his biographies as finding her hygiene habits a bit lacking as well, though it is possible that she was not being merely “bohemian,” but getting into character as a pioneer woman). Her intense approach to her character and their hesitant affinity on screen helped give their scenes together some fire and realism. Page‘s Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for this role is said to have left her co-star John Wayne somewhat dumbfounded, perhaps in part because Wayne‘s excellence in this film would not receive much critical acknowledgment until recent years.

Another facet of the story  that is expressed especially well in Hondo is a respectful attitude toward the Apache way of life, voiced primarily by the Wayne character of Hondo Lane, a part Apache dispatch rider for the U.S. Army who explains to a somewhat shocked Mrs. Lowe that he was once married briefly to an Apache woman himself. The character describes how Mrs. Lowe reminds him of his dead wife, Destarti.  The startled Angie asks haltingly if his wife shared her fair coloring, he explains that “her hair was black as ten feet down. Did you ever see a crow’s wing, how black and gleaming it is?… That’s the way her hair shined,” he says with the intensity of his memory of her clouding his face. After the woman asks if he loved her he replies simply  “I don’t know. I needed her.”

Wondering himself what about this tight-lipped homesteader really reminded him of his late wife,  he says that “I’ve thought about it. You don’t look anything like her. ” Heartbreakingly, the insecure Angie states that “I am fully aware that I am a homely woman, Mr. Lane,” to which he says “being pretty isn’t much. I know a lot of pretty people I wouldn’t trust with a busted nickle-plated watch. But some others, somethin’ comes outa the inside of ‘em and you know you can trust ‘em. Destarti had that. And you’ve got it too. ”

His candor about his past, a courtly decency, resourcefulness and his gruffly paternal interest in Johnny Lowe all play into the growing attraction between him and the stoic, plain lone woman.  Explaining to the scoffing ranch woman that his dog is capable of smelling an Indian at a distance, Hondo tells her that since he is part Apache, he can smell a white person as well.

“I’m part Indian and I can smell you when I’m downwind of you,” he goes on to tell Angie that “You baked today. I can smell fresh bread on you. Sometime today, you cooked with salt pork. Smell that on you, too. You smell all over like soap: you took a bath. And, on top of that, you smell all over like a woman. I could find you in the dark, Mrs. Lowe, and I’m only part Indian.”

A shift in the story’s tone comes just after Hondo (Wayne), encountering a desperado, is compelled to kill him in self-defense, only to learn that he has murdered the father of Johnny Lowe after finding a well worn tintype of the boy in the dead man’s pocket. In a vivid moment of regret and pain, he smashes his rifle after the import of his violent action begins to sink in. Hondo eventually makes his way back to the Lowe ranch after more physical and rhetorical skirmishes with the Apache, where Angie is finally convinced, as much by love as practicality, to leave her barren ranch for safety with Hondo and a small, inexperienced Cavalry band. There is also a conclusion for Sam the Dog that truly vexed this dog lover, especially since no one even comments on this turn of events for a moment. Unfortunately, this final sequence of the film, said to have been filmed by a visiting John Ford when a scheduling conflict caused Farrow’s absence, is probably the most mundane of the film. One needed be a West Point grad to know the unlikely route taken during this odd scene defies any kind of logistical common sense, though it does allow the Apache raiders to come out in the open so they can be eliminated from the rapidly unraveling plot more quickly. Overall though, I’d encourage those interested to see this film for the actors as well as some beautiful, if bleak vistas.

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*The larger-than-life walking contradiction that was John Farrow led to several occasions when his behavior caused friction with his cast and crew. A gifted man, Farrow, married to Maureen O’Sullivan, (by whom he had seven children), found time to write some fine and some pulpy screenplays, directed several excellent movies, wrote volumes of poetry and distinguished biographies of Father Damien and St. Thomas More, roamed the seas as a marine researcher and a naval intelligence officer during WWII, resisted the blacklist’s pressure in the Director’s Guild of America.  He was also, according to his daughter, actress Mia Farrow, a world class womanizer, and a terrible martinet when the mood struck him.

Glenn Ford was originally asked to star in Hondo, but after his negative experiences working with the sometimes autocratic Farrow on the recently completed Plunder of the Sun (1953) for Batjac, he backed out of the project. The producer, John Wayne, had to step into the part, which he later cited as among his favorite roles. Wayne, who was around 45 when this movie was made, was trim and capable of giving his nuanced character scenes their full due, as well as fulfilling the requirements of vigorous action sequences.

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Sources:

Davis, Ronald, Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne, University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

McGhee, Richard D., John Wayne: Actor, Artist, Hero, McFarland Press, 1999.

Roberts, Randy, Olson, James Stuart, John Wayne: American, Univ of Nebraska Press, 1997.

16 Responses Hondo (1953): A Western with Dimension
Posted By Medusa : May 28, 2010 10:39 am

Moira, you’ve done it again! Now I have to find ANOTHER movie and watch it after getting completely intrigued! I seem to have missed many Wayne movies, too, but the presence of Geraldine Page certainly puts this into a different category.

Wonderful article, Moira!

Posted By Medusa : May 28, 2010 10:39 am

Moira, you’ve done it again! Now I have to find ANOTHER movie and watch it after getting completely intrigued! I seem to have missed many Wayne movies, too, but the presence of Geraldine Page certainly puts this into a different category.

Wonderful article, Moira!

Posted By Kingrat : May 28, 2010 4:02 pm

Moira, I’m also fond of Farrow’s WHERE DANGER LIVES and BACK FROM ETERNITY. Nice piece about HONDO and interesting information about James Edward Grant. Lovely quote from Louis L’Amour, too.

Posted By Kingrat : May 28, 2010 4:02 pm

Moira, I’m also fond of Farrow’s WHERE DANGER LIVES and BACK FROM ETERNITY. Nice piece about HONDO and interesting information about James Edward Grant. Lovely quote from Louis L’Amour, too.

Posted By Jenni : May 29, 2010 10:36 pm

I saw Hondo when TCM aired it a year ago. I found it a wonderful western, with a touching love story, acted well by Geraldine Page and John Wayne. I too, agree, that his performance in The Searchers is great, but also, I would include his performance in Red River. I recently read Christopher Plummer’s autobiography, and he worked with Geraldine Page, too. I recall he admired her stage craft, but mentioned her bohemeian attitudes, so perhaps the hygiene issue wasn’t getting into character as a pioneer woman at all? Anyway, great review of Hondo.

Posted By Jenni : May 29, 2010 10:36 pm

I saw Hondo when TCM aired it a year ago. I found it a wonderful western, with a touching love story, acted well by Geraldine Page and John Wayne. I too, agree, that his performance in The Searchers is great, but also, I would include his performance in Red River. I recently read Christopher Plummer’s autobiography, and he worked with Geraldine Page, too. I recall he admired her stage craft, but mentioned her bohemeian attitudes, so perhaps the hygiene issue wasn’t getting into character as a pioneer woman at all? Anyway, great review of Hondo.

Posted By Al Lowe : May 30, 2010 5:42 am

“Are you ready,Buff?”

John Wayne, as Hondo Lane, asks this of his buddy Buffalo Baker(Ward Bond) as they try a new tactic in battling the Apaches.
The response is immediate.
“I was BORN READY,” Buffalo says.

According to Allen Eyles in his book “John Wayne and the Movies,” critics of that day compared the film unfavorably to SHANE due to the slight plot similarity of an ex-gunfighter assisting homesteaders.
Well, the heck with the critics. We all know a classic when we see one.

This was Geraldine Page’s first Oscar nomination. She was also nominated for SUMMER AND SMOKE, SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, PETE N TILLIE, INTERIORS and THE POPE OF GREENWHICH VILLAGE. She finally got her Oscar for A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. Perhaps expecting not to win she had kicked her shoes off and had a hard time finding them when her name was announced. The audience gave her a standing ovation.

Eyles says that the part of Angie had been offered to Katharine Hepburn first. He feels that she would have been too overpowering for it. I am not so sure.

Moirafinnie I agree with you regarding the fate of the dog. I don’t understand why they had to do that.

I also don’t understand why Wayne didn’t employ John Ford to direct this one. Maybe he thought it was hard enough to work for Ford. It would be worse to employ him.

Without a doubt this was one of the best films of that year.

Posted By Al Lowe : May 30, 2010 5:42 am

“Are you ready,Buff?”

John Wayne, as Hondo Lane, asks this of his buddy Buffalo Baker(Ward Bond) as they try a new tactic in battling the Apaches.
The response is immediate.
“I was BORN READY,” Buffalo says.

According to Allen Eyles in his book “John Wayne and the Movies,” critics of that day compared the film unfavorably to SHANE due to the slight plot similarity of an ex-gunfighter assisting homesteaders.
Well, the heck with the critics. We all know a classic when we see one.

This was Geraldine Page’s first Oscar nomination. She was also nominated for SUMMER AND SMOKE, SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, PETE N TILLIE, INTERIORS and THE POPE OF GREENWHICH VILLAGE. She finally got her Oscar for A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. Perhaps expecting not to win she had kicked her shoes off and had a hard time finding them when her name was announced. The audience gave her a standing ovation.

Eyles says that the part of Angie had been offered to Katharine Hepburn first. He feels that she would have been too overpowering for it. I am not so sure.

Moirafinnie I agree with you regarding the fate of the dog. I don’t understand why they had to do that.

I also don’t understand why Wayne didn’t employ John Ford to direct this one. Maybe he thought it was hard enough to work for Ford. It would be worse to employ him.

Without a doubt this was one of the best films of that year.

Posted By Christy : June 2, 2010 7:27 pm

Moira, I think we have a Hondo convert!

Excellent rundown of the facts, nuances, and personal motivations
for this classic film western.

My favorite line? “Why, I could find you in the dark, Mrs. Lowe.!” Who wouldn’t want a tall, good-looking, principled man
like that to find you in the dark? I think it’s one of the sexiest lines I’ve ever heard …on film.

Posted By Christy : June 2, 2010 7:27 pm

Moira, I think we have a Hondo convert!

Excellent rundown of the facts, nuances, and personal motivations
for this classic film western.

My favorite line? “Why, I could find you in the dark, Mrs. Lowe.!” Who wouldn’t want a tall, good-looking, principled man
like that to find you in the dark? I think it’s one of the sexiest lines I’ve ever heard …on film.

Posted By suzidoll : June 4, 2010 12:38 pm

Great article. I am a major John Wayne fan. The more time that passes, and the more my disappointment grows with contemporary male actors, the more I miss John Wayne on the big screen. I haven’t seen this film in a long time, and I don’t remember what happened to Sam the Dog, but I am guessing his fate is the reason for my mental note not to re-watch the film.

Posted By suzidoll : June 4, 2010 12:38 pm

Great article. I am a major John Wayne fan. The more time that passes, and the more my disappointment grows with contemporary male actors, the more I miss John Wayne on the big screen. I haven’t seen this film in a long time, and I don’t remember what happened to Sam the Dog, but I am guessing his fate is the reason for my mental note not to re-watch the film.

Posted By moirafinnie : June 9, 2010 4:45 pm

Yeah, Suzi, you might want to look away when Sam’s role is wound up. (I wish I had. More puzzling in terms of storytelling is the absence of any further mention of Sam in the script!).

I happened to watch the beginning of “True Grit” last night during last night’s tribute to Dennis Hopper, and was reminded how funny The Duke could be when he had a chance, (I find his serving of the writ on the rat most amusing, in part because it is a bit shocking).

In “Hondo” he does make some wry comments on the likelihood of Geraldine Page’s situation and his seductive observations of her are laced with a nice bit of impertinent understanding of her temperament and predicament.

I’d never seen “Hondo” until a few years ago on TCM, so I suspect that lots of people who like John Wayne (no matter their politics), probably might enjoy discovering this underrated movie.

Thanks to all of you for your comments.

Posted By moirafinnie : June 9, 2010 4:45 pm

Yeah, Suzi, you might want to look away when Sam’s role is wound up. (I wish I had. More puzzling in terms of storytelling is the absence of any further mention of Sam in the script!).

I happened to watch the beginning of “True Grit” last night during last night’s tribute to Dennis Hopper, and was reminded how funny The Duke could be when he had a chance, (I find his serving of the writ on the rat most amusing, in part because it is a bit shocking).

In “Hondo” he does make some wry comments on the likelihood of Geraldine Page’s situation and his seductive observations of her are laced with a nice bit of impertinent understanding of her temperament and predicament.

I’d never seen “Hondo” until a few years ago on TCM, so I suspect that lots of people who like John Wayne (no matter their politics), probably might enjoy discovering this underrated movie.

Thanks to all of you for your comments.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 4, 2010 1:11 am

I have loved Hondo for years and revisit it often. It is one of my “go to” movies, one I watch when I’m not sure what I want to watch. I seem to remember the character of Al Bundy on Married with Children having an affinity for Hondo, and being excited to watch it broadcast in 3-D on TV. I wonder if that ever really happened. I’d like to see it in 3-D.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 4, 2010 1:11 am

I have loved Hondo for years and revisit it often. It is one of my “go to” movies, one I watch when I’m not sure what I want to watch. I seem to remember the character of Al Bundy on Married with Children having an affinity for Hondo, and being excited to watch it broadcast in 3-D on TV. I wonder if that ever really happened. I’d like to see it in 3-D.

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