Movie Review: Smuggling Social Justice Into HONDO

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On the surface, the 1953 Western Hondo doesn’t rank with the top-tier John Wayne oaters.  It is good, for sure, a gently rousing tale of the half-Indian Cavalry scout (Wayne, of course) who forms a bond with female rancher Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her young son (Lee Aaker) against the violent maneuverings between the Apache Tribe and the U.S. Military.  However, director John Farrow proceeds over the flick with workmanlike proficiency, never threatening to match the technical/emotional virtuosity of Wayne’s greatest collaborators, John Ford and Howard Hawks.  Hondo is too easy, too relaxed – despite a subplot involving Angie’s rotter husband (who Hondo kills in self-defense), all the characters are basically pretty decent, and that applies double for Wayne himself.  You won’t find the psychological depth he evinced in pictures like The Shootist, The Searchers, and Red River.

Yet Hondo sticks with you, even if it doesn’t have Rio Bravo‘s moviemaking panache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon‘s nuance, and it is that decency that makes an impact.  Wayne’s notable “serious” efforts tend to telegraph their intentions: think the overt darkness of his Searchers and Red River protagonists, or the melancholy the dying icon brought to his cancer-afflicted Shootist hero.  Hondo seems too nice until you consider that it is affording humanity to a genre where humanity often comes in limited quantities.

We’ve seen the basic setup – Cowboys vs. Indians – and you can imagine a film where one side wears the black hat, and one side wears the white one (or, in a revisionist Western like The Searchers, where both sides get the black hat).  Hondo paints its factions with more delicacy.  As the film begins, the Cavalry is preparing a retaliatory strike against the Apaches, who have been raiding white farmers’ homes.  A sound motive, given more weight by the decidedly non-bloodthirsty attitude of the U.S.  With two exceptions (Leo Gordon’s aforementioned rotter, as well as James Arness’ sneering rider), everyone’s motives are sound, be they idealistic like the young cavalry commander (Tom Irish) or pragmatically cautious like Hondo or his oft-drunk best friend (the great Ward Bond).  The Apaches have attacked innocent settlers, and the army wants to avenge them.

But move to the Apaches’ perspective, and the moral victor changes.  The Apaches terrorize the whites in response to years of betrayal and violence; we signed a peace accord with them, and then we broke it, claiming their lands and killing their people.  As Hondo says early in the film, “The Apaches don’t have a word for lie,” and our deception impacts their culture with the force of a natural disaster.  From that viewpoint, we whites have caused the Apaches’ bloody retribution.

The film then goes further to humanize the Native Americans through its presentation of Apache leader Vittorio (Michael Pate).  Vittorio fights because we’ve forced him to, but he doesn’t lash out through blind, indiscriminate aggression.  When Vittorio finds Angie and her son alone on the prairie, he responds strongly to their kindness and bravery; Aaker’s character stands up to his war party, and Vittorio honors the boy’s courage by becoming his bloodbrother.  He appreciates that they respect all people, and as such, his ultimatum – that Angie’s husband return, or else she will have to marry one of his top lieutenants – doesn’t reek of cruel miscegenation.  He just wants this family protected as he wreaks vengeance against the land, and if the only person present to help them is of Apache blood, then so be it.

This fundamental compassion links Vittorio to Hondo, and it makes Wayne’s fraught romance less melodramatic.  Though Hondo was justified when he shot Angie’s husband (he tried to shoot Hondo first), Hondo keeps his participation in the murder a secret, and the deception tears him up.  Like Vittorio, Hondo doesn’t believe in lying (the two share a nice scene when Vittorio offers to protect Hondo and Angie should Hondo lie to the military about the Apaches’ position, and when Hondo refuses, Vittorio grants him protection anyways – he was testing Hondo’s willingness to lie), but he knows that if he tells Angie the truth, she might send him away and unwittingly subject her and her son to horrible depredations in the absence of a strong male protector (okay, so maybe Hondo‘s gender politics aren’t as progressive as its racial ones, but this was 1953.  You take what you can get).  His moral confusion forms the movie’s grandest theme – is there a difference between doing the wrong thing for the right reasons or the right thing for the wrong reasons?

Ultimately, this question gets resolved in another Western staple, an extended assault between the white settlers’ wagon train and the Apaches’ raiding party.  For a moment, my heart sank – here, we had morality reduced to “good” and “evil.”  Nevertheless, Hondo recovers in its last seconds; the closing remarks don’t go to Irish’s commander as he jubilantly announces that the military will wipe the Apaches’ entire way of life off the planet, but to Hondo’s quiet, sad response: “Yep, I guess they will.  And too bad, ‘cause it was a good way.”  Wayne alone restores Hondo‘s ambiguity, penance – maybe – for a career spent acting otherwise.

Minus a few softly defined shots, Paramount’s Hondo Blu-ray looks terrific, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio for the first time since the beginning of its home video lifetime.  One caveat: while it was shot in native 3D, the Blu-ray does not replicate that extra dimension.  The disc also has two Dolby TrueHD audio tracks: a spiffy 5.1 remix and a great original monaural track.

Features are more than respectable.  We get an introduction from critic Leonard Maltin, who returns for a commentary alongside historian Frank Thompson and actor Lee Aaker (Maltin also hosts the vintage “From the Batjac Vaults” featurette).  The Blu-ray also has four solid BTS featurettes (“The Making of Hondo,” “Profile: James Edward Grant,” “The John Wayne Stock Company: Ward Bond,” and “The Apache”), a photo gallery, and the theatrical trailer.

Hondo seems slight, and its direction is only okay, but there’s real weight here.  It imagines a world without villains, a rarity for any Western, let alone an early 1950’s one.

Hondo streets on June 5th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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