Cavalry scout Hondo Lane (John Wayne) strides out of the desert and takes shelter at a homestead belonging to Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her son Johnny (Lee Aaker). The rugged, resourceful and decent Hondo helps safeguard the isolate homestead, becoming a surrogate father for little Johnny, but although obviously smitten with the gracefully stoic Angie, Hondo will not take advantage of a married woman. With Apaches on the warpath, Hondo warns Mrs. Lowe to abandon her home, but she stays put after he leaves and she and Johnny win the respect of Apache chief Vittorio (Michael Pate). However, Silva (Rodopho Acosta), his dastardly second-in-command, isn’t quite as friendly and bides his time. Meanwhile, Hondo returns to his cavalry post only to be ambushed by a desperado named Ed Lowe (Leo Gordon), Angie’s husband…
A much underrated western, this. Based on a novel by prolific western author Louis L’Amour, Hondo has the iconic John Wayne in his prime and also serving as co-producer. Nowadays we tend to pigeonhole Wayne as a right-wing, one-dimensional “Injun Killer”, which overlooks the complexities of his screen persona. Often, as in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948), Wayne played western heroes who tried their utmost to curtail a potentially genocidal conflict or, in The Searchers (1956), a flawed hero whose surface racism masked an unnerving kinship felt with Native Americans. As late as Chisum (1970), a jingoistic hymn to Wild West expansionism, Wayne expressed mixed feelings over his former adversary, an aging Indian with whom he finds more in common than the surrounding youth.
Hondo Lane was raised by Indians and had an Indian wife. He expresses admiration for the Native American way of life and, with due humility, admits it was the white man who broke the treaty that sent Vittorio on the warpath. Played with great dignity by Michael Pate, Vittorio is less an adversary per se than Hondo’s unfettered alter-ego. Both men share a set of values, a belief in honour, family and the importance of strong fathers, while despising anyone who lacks integrity or would sell others out to save their own skin. However, where Vittorio - having already lost everything - would fight nihilistically to the death, Hondo is a pragmatist. He recognises the west will be swept away by the advancing pioneers, but for all his regrets would rather join the prevailing civilisation than die alone. His fierce, independent side, as symbolised by the mangy, feral dog who follows everywhere he goes (and contrary to popular belief was not played by the original Lassie, but by one of their offspring), is duly tamed.
The casual statement that Native Americans should rightfully give way to the white men is symptomatic of its time and certainly up for debate. Far more eloquently expressed is the film’s other dominant theme: the importance of fatherhood. Not just in the contrasting, yet equally admirable figures of Hondo and Vittorio but in the paternal attitude grizzled cavalry scout Buffalo (Ward Bond) takes towards the gung-ho, yet clearly out-of-his death young Lieutenant McKay (Tom Irish). John Wayne admirably holds his own opposite celebrated Broadway actress Geraldine Page. Page, who was nominated for an Oscar (but had to wait till Trip to Bountiful (1985) before she won the award), invests Mrs. Lowe with much warmth and her own quiet strength. Originally shown in 3-D (hence opening credits where John Wayne rides his horse out onto the audience), Hondo was directed by John Farrow, who re-teamed with Wayne for the atypical The Sea Chase (1955). Married to actress Maureen O’Sullivan (on whose Tarzan Escapes (1936) he served as uncredited co-director), Farrow made a number of interesting movies including film noir thriller The Big Clock (1948) - which also stars O’Sullivan - and the modern-day Faust adaptation, Alias Nick Beal (1949), and was also a writer of short stories and biographies including those of St. Thomas More and Father Damien. He won his only Oscar as the screenwriter of Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) and succumbed to a heart attack in 1963 aged 58.
After a poetic and powerful first two thirds, the last twenty minutes or so lapse a trifle disappointingly into shoot-’em-up mode, but remain thrilling with plenty of well-orchestrated action. Lookout for a young James Arness, formerly The Thing from Another World (1951), who went on to become almost as big a western icon as John Wayne, in the long-running TV series Gunsmoke. Close friends with Arness, Wayne actually appeared onscreen to introduce the first televised episode.