I fondly remember many Saturday evenings, sitting with my parents and younger brother, watching a Western on one of the three networks that at that time, in the 1970’s, were the dominant television channels an American could tune into. My memories seem to tell me that it was NBC that usually aired these Westerns, and of course, the best ones starred John Wayne. I have seen a lot of Wayne’s Western films over the years, but imagine my surprise when three years ago on Turner Classic Movies, they aired one I had never heard of before, Hondo. This technicolor movie was made in 1953, directed by John Farrow(father of actress Mia, wife to actress Maureen O’Sullivan), with John Wayne in the lead role, as Hondo Lane. The film was based on a Louis L’Amour short story, The Gift of Cochise. At 84 minutes, it has an intricate plot, told well at a fast pace that doesn’t lose the viewers interest one iota.
The plot revolves around 4 characters, the remaining cast members adding to the ebb and flow of the minor sub-plots. Wayne’s Hondo Lane is a half-breed, working as a message runner for the U.S. Calvary stationed at a fort in the New Mexico territory. The year of the setting isn’t mentioned, but I would guess it’s after the Civil War. Lane has a reputation for having killed 3 men the previous year, but we can also tell that Lane is an honorable man and we are on his side from the beginning of the movie; we can safely assume that he killed those 3 men in self-defense. He does mention his first wife, now deceased, from time to time. She was a beautiful Native American woman, and her death has added a layer of sadness to Lane’s persona, as well as his views on the treatment of the Native Americans by the white settlers and the U. S. Government. He can see both sides of the arguments, so to speak, due to his unique heritage.
Geraldine Page, portrays the second character of the film, that of Mrs. Angie Lowe. Her parents were early settlers to the New Mexico territory, and it is their small ranch that she lives on as she was an only child and the sole inheritor of the property. She has a husband, who was an orphan her parents helped raise, but we do learn later that he isn’t a model husband. Angie is a strong woman, smart, but will do what she can to protect her son from the facts about his father’s antics. Her son, Johnny, age 6, is the only blessing in her life from her marriage to Ed Lowe(played by Leo Gordon, a tall actor, who often played bad guys in Western movies and television shows.) Johnny, played by Lee Aaker, is a typical 6 year old, and while he doesn’t have a lot of lines to say, a subplot does revolve around him involving the 4th main character of this film, Apache Chief Vittorio, played by Michael Pate.
Chief Vittorio, strong and in command of his tribe, is increasingly worrying about more and more white settlers that are moving into his territory. He is not happy that there is a U. S. Calvary presence in the area either. His second in command, Silva(played by Rodolfo Acosta), is a hot-head who Chief Vittorio often has to rein in. This tribe of Apaches has always been on good terms with Angie Lowe and her parents, often stopping at the ranch due to it’s having a good source of water on it. The Chief, during one of these visits for water, becomes curious as to why Angie’s husband is never around. He is impressed with Johnny’s bravery at trying to protect his mother during this visit as Silva makes a crude gesture towards her. Chief Vittorio decides to make Johnny a blood brother with the Apaches, and he also warns Angie that if her husband doesn’t show up soon, that he will come back to take her and her son and raise her son in the Apache way, so that this brave boy will learn to be man.
Minor characters in the film are: Ward Bond as Buffalo Baker, a fellow message deliverer for the Calvary and Lane’s friend, James Arness(the future Sheriff Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke fame) as Lennie, an Army Indian Scout, Tom Irish, as Lt. McKay, a new Calvary officer, and Paul Fix, as Major Sherry, in charge of the fort.
The aspects of the settlers vs. the Native Americans is portrayed with wisdom, the developing relationship with Lane and Angie is told in a moving way and with restraint. Geraldine Page indeed, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her part in this film. There is a tangle Lane gets into with a card player he angered that is central to the plot, his being mistaken as a Calvary soldier that leads to an unfortunate encounter with Chief Vittorio and Silva, and the news that the Apaches may be preparing for an uprising, all this fits into this very well acted Western. All in all, Hondo is a very fine film, and Wayne gives a very thoughtful performance. If you haven’t seen it, seek it out. It is available on dvd through Amazon, through Netflix and Netflix Steaming.