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Family Keeps John Wayne's Legacy Alive

Gretchen Wayne says she hopes her father-in-law, the late Hollywood cowboy John Wayne, would be proud of the way she is working to keep his legacy alive.

Gretchen is the owner and president of Batjac Productions Inc. -- the film company Wayne founded in 1951 and which his son Michael, Gretchen's husband, ran for more than 30 years until his death in 2003. John Wayne, star of "The Searchers," "True Grit" and "The Quiet Man," died in 1979.

In a recent phone interview with United Press International, she said preserving cinematic history is satisfying work.

"But I'm also doing something my husband had done and wanted to do and didn't get the opportunity to finish. So I hope I'm not embarrassing him and certainly not my father-in-law," she said.

Among Gretchen's chief goals are continuing to entertain the Duke's legion of fans, while introducing his films to a new generation. One way to do that is to digitally restore and re-release some of his classics. The 1953 western "Hondo" made its debut on Blu-ray this month.

"It really is how the film was meant to be seen -- in the wide-screen, with the depth of the picture, the image. You feel like you're right in that dry, dusty desert with the heavy, humid clouds overhead. It really is beautifully done," Gretchen observed, noting "Hondo" was particularly close to her late husband's heart because he worked on the set when he was still in high school.

"He and his brother Patrick went on location down to Mexico during the summer," recalled Gretchen, who was dating Michael at the time. "It was so hot. It was like 120 degrees. ... The experience of being down on location, of being with his dad [was one he never forgot.] It certainly was a hellish spot to have to be. But he said it was a big treat to get a Coca-Cola, something cold. He said there was tremendous camaraderie on the film crew. I have stills of them all sitting at long picnic tables, everyone eating. There was no hierarchy. If there was an open space and the guy next to you was a grip, it didn't matter if you were an actor. ... And the boys got to fool around with the stunt men and Michael helped out in counting money to give to the performers. It was the best summer camp in the world."

Something else that made "Hondo" special was it was shot in the fledgling high-tech format of 3D.

"[John Wayne] loved film. He started out in the early days, he actually had small parts in two silent films. So, he really evolved with the film business," Gretchen explained. "He was all about the innovations that would make it better and would make the experience for the film-goer more exciting, so if 3D was the next thing down the line, he wanted to make a 3D movie and he did it with 'Hondo.'"

Gretchen said she expects distributor Paramount Pictures will eventually re-release "Hondo" in 3D when more home theaters have 3D capabilities.

So what is it about this film that gives it such a timeless quality?

"[Wayne's character Hondo Lane] has got a moral dilemma in that he knows the woman is married and he realizes who her husband is and that he has killed this man," Gretchen said. "He has affection for her little boy. It's also a story a woman can identify with. She's alone and she's married a bum and he's left her alone on a ranch that belonged to her parents and she knows he married her only because she had a ranch and probably a little money. And I think that's a very contemporary story in today's world. You could take it out of a western and put it anyplace. I think those things resonate with people. It also resonates when she says, 'I know I'm not a handsome woman.' And he doesn't say, 'Oh, no, that's not true.' He says, 'I wouldn't give you a plug nickel for a pretty woman...' He said, 'You've got something more; you've got [beauty] inside.'"

Gretchen emphasized how movie fans of all ages can watch and enjoy "Hondo" together.

"The thing about a John Wayne movie, whatever it is, you can sit there with your kids and grandchildren, watch it and not be embarrassed by anything," she said. "He had that philosophy. He was an actor who was very successful and he had an in-home screening room and we'd go up a couple of times a week to watch movies and it killed him if his younger children were in the room and something came on-screen he thought was totally inappropriate. He just thought some things didn't have to be shown. You could use your imagination."

Gretchen said she thinks her father-in-law would be pleased by how well-known and beloved his films still are decades after he made them.

"He really felt he never wanted to be a cheat to his audience in any manner," she said. "You could always count on him to be honest, trustworthy, patriotic. He was consistent and he never deviated from that and that was very important to him. So I think that if [people's enduring regard] would be the reward, then that would be lovely."

Starring Geraldine Page, Ward Bond, Michael Pate and James Arness, "Hondo" was directed by John Farrow and based on the short story "The Gift of Cochise" by Louis L'Amour. The DVD and Blu-ray include commentary by film critic Leonard Maltin, western historian Frank Thompson and actor Lee Aaker, as well as a "making-of" featurette.

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