Hondo: He's no Ethan Edwards
Wayne Engle | Madison, IN United States | 12/01/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"If you've seen "The Searchers," then John Wayne's portrayal of Hondo Lane will remind you in some ways of Ethan Edwards, the angry, "racist" lead character in his later, better-known movie.
But they're different -- "Hondo" gives its own spin on life in the Old West, unlike the latter movie of Wayne's. Ethan Edwards of "The Searchers" is an enraged, hating man; Hondo Lane is calmer, more observant of life in general, given to wise, laconic comments about how to survive as a loner in the West to Geraldine Page's well-meaning but often flighty ranch wife, who is ultimately his love interest in the film.
Ethan Edwards knew the Indians and their ways, and hated them. Hondo Lane knows the Indians and their ways -- he is candid about being part-Indian himself -- and makes no secret of his respect for them. As a result, the Apaches who menace the settlers and fight the Cavalry in "Hondo" are portrayed more sympathetically, and with more nuances, than Edwards' despised Comanches. On the other hand, "Hondo" tends to idealize the Indians as "noble savages" -- Hondo Lane claims in a couple of scenes that the Apaches never lie. In "The Searchers," one might say, the Comanches are at least portrayed as more human and flawed.
Edwards had no pets that we are made aware of -- but Hondo has Sam. That is, Sam consents to travel with him. The fiercely independent, don't-pet-me-or-I'll-bite-you dog, who forages for his own food (I don't need no humans to feed me!), tags along with Hondo, once drowning an Indian who had tried to kill his human friend. The film resists the temptation to have Hondo grieve or sentimentalize when Sam is speared and killed later by another Indian. This seems harsh on first viewing -- but wait. Hondo has made it clear that he is an unsentimental, practical loner who takes care of himself. Sam was the same way. Now Sam is gone, and Hondo doubtless hurt for him in his innermost soul. But we are shown no manifestation of it. Somehow, that's the way it should be in this Western.
The action sequences in "Hondo" are even better than those in the later, longer "The Searchers." Wayne appears to have done a lot of -- but not all of -- his own stunts in "Hondo." But he was three years younger than when he made "The Searchers".
Last but not least there is Ward Bond, playing Hondo's long-time trail pal. Bond portrayed only one part -- if you've seen one movie with him, you've seen all his roles -- but he played it superbly. Also, look for a very young James Arness in a small but key speaking role; a year or two later he would rocket to TV fame as Matt Dillon in "Gunsmoke." Wayne reportedly helped him to land the plum role.
"Hondo" is an exceptional Western which never got the attention it deserved because the same year, Alan Ladd made "Shane." Here's your chance to see it for the first time, 56 years after it was made. It's well worth it.