The western movie takes on more ballast with john Farrow’s Hondo (1953): a probing critique of the complex relationship between the native Indian and the white settler. This intricately intertwined relationship is brought forth in the title character, Hondo Lane – a dispatcher for the U.S. Cavalry who harbours a moral integrity, intuitive respect and admiration for the First Nations peoples. Based on Louis L’Amour’s short story (later expanded into a best seller) James Edward Grant’s screenplay matures the western beyond its usual scope. This isn’t your average cowboys and Indians action/adventure per say, although if that’s all you’re looking for then the film functions on that basic level too. But there is also a moral ambiguity to the piece that blurs the western clichés into tonal shades of gray. Like Angie Lowe – the embittered woman raising an only child on an isolated ranch – we, the audience have to come to terms and our own conclusions about the American west. Farrow doesn’t provide us with any cut and dry easy answers or patriotic flag waving. The casting of John Wayne as our hero, however, softens this blow.
What does one say about John Wayne, whose impressive body of work spanned from the early talkies to the mid-1970s? If not for death, I have no doubt Wayne would still be making movies to this day and as big a box office draw as ever. There really isn’t anyone to compare – or even anyone who comes close – and that is why John Wayne remains an indestructible touchstone as iconic and resilient as the American west. The Duke gives one of his most iconic performances as Hondo – the half-Apache man unto himself who is caught between these irreconcilable worlds of the nomad and the settler. He is an accomplished gunfighter, forthright but never self-righteous, and able to see quite clearly the mistakes each side has made to the detriment of both. Duke’s Hondo is sincere and intelligent in his attempt to straddle this chasm, healing self-inflicted wounds as a nation struggles to come together.
Our story begins on Angie Lowe’s (Geraldine Page) remote New Mexico ranch. A homesteader whose husband has been gone for quite some time, Angie is raising her son, Johnny (Lee Aaker). One afternoon, Hondo Lane appears on the horizon, on foot and carrying his saddlebags and rifle. He tells Angie he lost his horse in a clash with Indians while riding dispatches for the U.S. Cavalry. Offering to ‘break’ a pair of wild bucks for Angie, if he can have one to ride to the outpost, Hondo quickly tames his ride, then proceeds to do a few menial chores around the ranch.
At nightfall Angie offer Hondo a bed on the floor inside the house. He graciously accepts. However, when Angie notices ‘Hondo’ inscribed on the rifle butt she recalls from memory the gunslinger who killed three men the previous year. Angie tries to defend herself at gunpoint. Thankfully, the first chamber is empty for safety and Hondo is spared. After loading the gun for Angie’s safety, Hondo leaves the ranch for the cavalry outpost, informing Buffalo Baker (Ward Bond) and Major Sherry (Paul Fix) that the troops they sent to bring settlers north have been slaughtered by the Apache.
Meanwhile, a band of Apaches led by Chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) and Silva (Rodolfo Acosta) arrive at Angie’s ranch. Her previous relationship with the Indians has been civil. But this time they manhandle her. Johnny rushes to his mother’s aid and nicks Silva’s ear with a single gunshot. Impressed by his bravery, Vittorio makes Johnny an Apache blood brother, then informs Angie that unless her husband returns soon she will be forced to take an Apache husband because Johnny needs a male to teach him how to become a man.
In town, Hondo gets into a barroom brawl during a poker game with boorish Ed Lowe (Leo Gordon) whom Hondo suspects as Angie’s missing husband. Feeling guilty, Hondo decides to go and see Angie to confirm his suspicions. Unaware that he is being tailed by Lowe and his ill-bred hired man (Frank McGrath), Hondo prepares to make camp for the night. After a confrontation with a pair of Indians, Hondo is forced to kill Ed who is still determined to avenge the earlier insult. Discovering a tintype of Johnny among Ed’s belongings, Hondo realizes he has just murdered Angie’s wayward husband.
The next day, Hondo is attacked by an Apache party who capture and take him to Vittorio. The tribe plan to kill Hondo to avenge his killing Silva’s brother. But when Vittorio finds Johnny’s picture in Hondo’s satchel he erroneously assumes that Hondo is Angie’s husband. Silva declares the ‘blood rite’ to avenge his brother. The men do battle with a pair of knives. Although Silva wounds Hondo in the shoulder, Hondo manages to pin his assailant to the ground, drawing his knife close to Silva’s throat and ordering him to withdraw the blood rite or die like his brother. Silva agrees and Vittorio takes Hondo to Angie who lies that he is her husband to save Hondo’s life.
As Hondo recovers from his wounds, he and Angie grow closer. Their flawed romance is interrupted by Vittorio’s arrival once again. This time the Chief asks Hondo not to join the cavalry soldiers passing through or to divulge the Apache’s location to them. Although Hondo agrees to the first request, he openly refuses the second. Respecting Hondo’s honesty and his decision, Vittorio rides off to warn his tribe. Fronted by the ineffectual Lieutenant McKay (Tom Irish) the army arrives at the ranch. One of the scouts (James Arness) attempts to barter with Hondo for keeping his silence over having discovered Ed’s body in the desert. Instead, Hondo tells Angie the truth about how he bushwhacked her husband. Angie confides in Hondo that she had no love for the man who abandoned her and Johnny for a lifestyle devoted to women, drink and gambling. At her behest, Hondo vows to never tell Johnny the truth about his father.
The army is ambushed by the Apaches in a bloody battle. Lt. McKay is badly wounded, but Vittorio is killed. Angie and Johnny join a protective wagon train heading to the army front. Twice attacked and narrowly escaping harm, the settler’s retreat. But Hondo arrives on the scene where Silva has taken up arms against them. The men do battle once more and Hondo kills Silva. This is the epitaph for the Apache way of life: a rather telling postscript lamented by Hondo as ‘a good way’ as he takes Angie and Johnny back to the fort, presumably to join their family as the boy’s surrogate father.
Hondo is an engrossing, enlightened western. There is a genuine affinity for the Chiricahua Apache. We see them as people – apart and different from the settlers and the cavalry, but hardly the embodiment of that clichéd blood-thirsty savage so readily depicted in countless other western movies. This refreshingly welcomed perspective is capped off by Hondo’s own sadness in acknowledging that the Apache must yield to the white man’s strength in numbers. But the screenplay never picks a side or hints that European colonization represents ‘the taming’ of the American southwest.
Again, John Wayne is at the very top of his game. He’s a gunslinger with a social conscience, a man unharmed – though not unchanged – by the upheaval of Native Americans. He can see the other side of what makes for a country’s manifest destiny and the view is neither progressive nor wholly inspiring, but strewn in corpses on both sides and the eradication of a simpler way of living that will never return. Geraldine Page delivers an Oscar worthy performance that manages to embrace a lifetime of regret and unhappiness, yet somehow retains the promise of a better tomorrow.
Hondo was originally shot in 3D and shown theatrically in 1.37:1 so it’s a bit disconcerting to find Paramount’s Blu-ray in 2D and 1.85:1. Frankly, I don’t understand Paramount cropping and reframing the image to accommodate widescreen monitors. OAR should have been observed!!! The Warnercolor looks quite good, given that the process itself had obvious limitations. Previous home video transfers exacerbated the shortcomings of Warnercolor – its severe grain and extremely muddy colors. For the most part, Paramount’s hi-def transfer rectifies these, although certain scenes continue to suffer from a decidedly thick and slightly blurry characteristic that is unflattering. I can overlook these shortcomings because the image overall is head and shoulders better than what we’ve seen on home video. Colors pop. There’s a good smattering of fine detail and solid retention of film grain that is very grain like. Archie Stout’s cinematography glows, capturing the gritty essence of those sandy dunes, mesas and craggy landscapes.
There are two audio options: original mono and 5.1 DTS stereo. I’m a purist so I watched the film in mono, but can report that the battle sequences were fairly impressive when reviewed in stereo. Special features are from the 2005 SE DVD and include a comprehensive audio commentary from Leonard Maltin, Frank Thompson and Lee Aaker. We also get a 43 min. ‘making of’ chopped into three segments, a 15min. history lesson on the Apache, a 2 min. interview with the late Michael Wayne, an HD stills gallery and HD trailer. Good stuff and recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)