Hondo

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

At a remote ranch in the desert of New Mexico Territory, homesteader Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her six year-old son Johnny (Lee Aaker) come upon a stranger (John Wayne) on foot coming towards their ranch, carrying only his saddle bags and a rifle. The man tells them only his last name, Lane, and that he was riding dispatch for the US Army Cavalry. He had lost his horse in an encounter with some Indians a few days before, and offers US Army scrip or work for one of her horses. Angie tells Lane that her ranch hand had quit recently and hadn’t had a chance to break her two horses for riding, so Lane offers to break a horse himself. He also asks where her husband is, and she says he is rounding up calves and cattle in the mountains and should return soon.

Johnny watches with fascination as Lane saddles one of the horses and rides the bucking and untamed animal with ease. Lane also offers to do a few chores around the ranch, including sharpening an axe and chopping firewood. Lane deduces by the neglected work around the ranch that her husband has not been at the ranch for some time, a fact she confesses is true. When night falls and it starts to rain, Angie offers to let Lane sleep in her home on a floor bed in the corner. Angie sees that the butt of his rifle is inscribed “Hondo” Lane, whom she knows had killed three men the year before, but doesn’t know the circumstances. She attempts to shoot him, but due to the first chamber being empty for safety, Hondo is not hurt. He loads the chamber and tells her to keep it that way and keep it high, out of Johnny’s reach.

Hondo leaves Angie and Johnny at the ranch and returns to his Cavalry post, where he meets up with his friend Buffalo Baker (Ward Bond). He reports to his commanding officer that C troop, which was sent to gather and bring in settlers to the north, is not coming back. He found their company guidon on two Indians, whom he subsequently killed. It is now clear to the Major (Paul Fix) that all of the Apache nation is raiding and killing settlers. At the ranch, Angie and Johnny are beset by Apaches, led by Chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) and his main under-chief, Silva (Rodolfo Acosta). Angie is not made nervous by their presence as she has always let them use their water, and they had never attacked her family before. Soon, however, they are manhandling Angie, and Johnny emerges from the house with the loaded pistol and shoots at Silva, nicking Silva in the head and then, as Silva recovers and approaches him, he throws the pistol at Silva. Vittorio is impressed by Johnny’s bravery and makes him an Apache blood brother by cutting Johnny’s thumb with a knife and giving him an Apache name. Vittorio also wonders where Angie’s husband is and she tells him that he’ll return soon. Vittorio tells her that unless her husband does so, she must take an Apache husband because the boy needs a father to teach him to become a man.

A night or two later in a saloon, Hondo calls a friend from his poker game, but one of the poker players objects. He and Hondo get into a fight, and Hondo beats up the man badly, driving him out the door. Buffalo Baker tells Hondo the man called himself “Ed Lowe” (Leo Gordon), and Hondo suspects he might be Angie’s missing husband. Feeling guilty, he leaves the fort to return Angie’s horse to her. Seeking revenge for the bar beating, Lowe and an accomplice (Frank McGrath) follow Hondo through the desert as he makes his way to Angie’s ranch. Hondo camps near a river but leaves it when he detects two Indians stalking him nearby. Lowe enters the camp and he and his guide are attacked by the two Indians. The guide is killed, but Hondo shoots and kills an Apache about to kill Lowe. Lowe is briefly grateful but turns his gun on Hondo in retaliation for the bar beating. Hondo defends himself, killing Lowe. Hondo finds a tintype of Johnny alongside Lowe’s body, confirming that Lowe is Johnny’s father and Angie’s husband.

Continuing towards Lowe’s ranch, Hondo runs into an Apache party, who pursue Hondo through the desert. He kills several but they eventually capture him. They take Hondo to the top of a nearby mesa when Vittorio appears. They stake him out and begin to torture and prepare to kill him because he is wearing his old Army hat and they wish to find out the location and number of the Cavalry soldiers. An Indian shows Vittorio the picture of Johnny from Hondo’s saddlebag, and Vittorio thinks Hondo is Angie’s husband. He orders the Indians to untie him; and Silva declares the blood rite as Hondo had killed his brother. Knives are used in the fight of the blood rite. Silva wounds Hondo in the shoulder, but Hondo pins Silva to the ground. Hondo puts his knife to Silva’s throat, and gives him the option to take back the blood rite or die as did his brother. Silva gives in. Vittorio takes Hondo to Angie’s ranch, and when Vittorio asks if Hondo is her husband, she lies, saving Hondo. The Chief warns Hondo to raise Johnny in the Apache way and leaves them.

While Hondo recuperates from his wounds, he shows her the picture of Johnny that he tells her he took from Lowe’s body. She asks if he died well, and Hondo pauses before saying that he had. Over the next few weeks, Hondo and Angie grow closer. Hondo and Angie express their growing love for each other. Hondo attempts to reveal the truth of her husband’s death, but is interrupted by Vittorio’s sudden appearance. Vittorio tells them that the pony soldiers will soon return. He asks Hondo not to join them and to keep the Indian’s location a secret. Hondo promises to do the first but not the latter, and Vittorio shows respect for Hondo’s truthfulness. Angie tells him she loves him, and they cement their relationship with a kiss.

The Army arrives at the ranch, commanded by an ambitious, inexperienced young Lt. McKay (Tom Irish) and accompanied by scouts Baker and Lennie (James Arness). McKay is determined to protect the settlers in the area by relocating them to the Army post and defend the area against Apache attacks. Lennie reveals that he discovered Lowe’s body and matched the horse tracks to Hondo’s horse. He wants Hondo’s Winchester rifle in exchange for keeping quiet about how Hondo bushwhacked Lowe. Angie overhears Lennie’s demands.

Hondo prepares to leave, but before he goes, he tells her the truth about her husband’s death. Hondo is also intent on telling Johnny, but she persuades him not to, telling Hondo she didn’t love her husband any longer and had grown tired of his womanizing and gambling. She says it would be an unkind thing to tell the boy about the true nature of his father’s death and that the secret won’t follow them to Hondo’s ranch in California. Hondo responds to her emotional plea with an Indian word that seals a squaw-seeking ceremony, “Varlabania”, which he tells her means “forever”. The Army leaves to move further on into Apache territory and as promised Hondo refuses to go with them but confirms with Buffalo that he knows where Vittorio and his party are and that the young Lt. is leading them into a massacre. Buffalo knows but he also knows that scouts such as himself have been helping to train young West Point officers for many years.

The Army returns after being ambushed by the Apaches, suffering heavy casualties including wounds to Lt. McKay. Vittorio had been killed, causing the Apaches to retreat so they can regroup and select a new chief. Hondo, Angie and Johnny join the Cavalry and settlers and head to the fort. The group is attacked by the Apaches, now led by Silva, and the group circles their wagons. They escape the encirclement twice but the Apaches continue their pursuit. Hondo loses his mount and is attacked by Silva, but Hondo kills him, retrieving Lt. McKay’s uniform shirt from his body. The Indians retreat again to choose a replacement chief.

Lt. McKay says that General Crook will be arriving in the territory with a large force to pursue the Apache. Hondo sadly notes the end of the Apache “way of life,” denoting that it is too bad as it was a good way. The movie ends with the idea that once back to the fort, Hondo, Angie and Johnny would continue on to Hondo’s ranch in California as a family

REVIEW:

I was doing a little research just now on Hondo and it turns out that this was John Wayne’s return to the western genre after a three-year absence. It is safe to say that if you know anything about John Wayne, it is that he is synonymous with westerns, but the guy has made a few outside of the genre. I may check one of those out soon. At any rate, is Wayne’s return successful and is this a watchable film, or just another run of the mill western?

What is this about?

An antisocial half-breed who splits his time between the white man and the Apache develops an unlikely friendship with a New Mexico farm wife.

What did I like?

Cowboys and Indians. A good ol’ fashioned showdown between cowboys and Indians. Man, it has been some time since I’ve watched a western that pits these two against each other. Think the last one might have been The Searchers, since then I think all the westerns I’ve seen, except for maybe 2 or 3 have targeted the Mexicans. As you can imagine, going back to basics, as it were, it a real treat.

Hint at violence. One would think that with this kind of film, we’d get lots of blood splattered all over the place, but that would be an incorrect assumption. This is going to sound extremely hypocritical of me, especially after praising the violence in Kingsman: The Secret Service, but I actually liked that there was no real violence. Sure there is the gunfight at the end, this is a western, after all. Also, we are privy to murder, a dog being impaled, knife fights, etc. In today’s society, this would have all been shown, perhaps in its bloody brilliance, but as we can learn from these old films, sometimes it is what you don’t show that makes the most impact.

Medusa. Geraldine Page doesn’t have the looks you would expect a leading lady in a major motion picture to have. That sounded really mean, but it is true. However, as you watch her character, you can see that she most definitely has some serious acting chops. No wonder she was nominated for an Oscar in this role. She goes toe to toe with Wayne and delivers a powerful monologue about her feelings towards him and the conflict about her husband. It is the kind of stuff that is sure to blow you away.

What didn’t I like?

Apaches. There was something off about these Apaches. First, let me compliment the film for not spray tanning some actors to make them look like they were Native American, or if they did, at least getting better spray paint. It may have been the costumes they were outfitted in, but I didn’t feel like I needed to run in fear of these Indians. They might as well have been the Go-Go Gophers! I can’t tell you what it is about that made them not intimidating, but whatever it is wasn’t working for me.

Notorious gunfighter. Early on in the film, Geraldine Page’s character comes across Wayne’s gun and the plate on it. It turns out that he is a notorious gunman with quite a few kills under his belt, but that’s all we hear about it. For the rest of the film, not a peep, whisper, or anything is said further about this tidbit of information that was obviously of some importance. Seems to me like it should have been more of a plot point, but what do I know?

Duke. I really hate to say this, but it is becoming more and more apparent that Wayne’s movies follow a certain pattern, especially his characters. I don’t mind him being the tough guy hero, but may times he ends up falling for the widow woman and single-handedly defeats the enemy. If he was around today, we’d want him to put on a pair of tights and be a superhero. Hey, they haven’t announced Vigilante for anything yet. Can you imagine John Wayne as him? Seriously, though, did this guy have any range? I’m starting to question if he did.

All in all, Hondo was pretty enjoyable, albeit predictable. A friend of mine said this could best be described as “a Hot Pocket of westerns”. What she meant by that is it has everything you want and will satisfy you for a little bit, but in the long run, you’ll want something more substantial. Don’t get me wrong, this is a really good flick, just not as good as others in the genre. Do I recommend it? Yes and no. I think you should see it, just don’t go out of your way. Chances are AMC will play it more than a few times this year on their western Saturday block of movies.

4 out of 5 stars

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