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Apaches in Hondo

Hondo In the introduction to the DVD of John Wayne's Hondo, Leonard Maltin says:

The treatment of Indians in this story is certainly more progressive than you would have found in a Western made a decade earlier. The character of Hondo is part Indian himself.That's true, but it's not necessarily enough to merit praise. Let's take a look.

Hondo (film)

Hondo is a 1953 western film starring John Wayne. It is somewhat a retelling of Hamlet, in that Hondo kills a young boy's father, marries the boy's mother and becomes a father figure for the boy. The screenplay is based on the short story The Gift of Cochise by Louis L'Amour.

The story tells the adventures of a cavalry scout and his relation with a frontier woman and her son at an isolated ranch. Geraldine Page played Mrs. Lowe and Ward Bond played Wayne's sidekick. The main story line tells of Hondo Lane, a cavalry rider, who is captured by the Apache Indians under Chief Vittorio. Hondo escapes and comes to Lowe's rescue in her time of need.

Let's tally Hondo's good and bad points and see which side wins. Spoiler alert:  Don't read any further if you haven't seen the movie and don't want to spoil it.

Act 1
Hondo begins with Hondo Lane walking up to the ranch owned and operated by Angie Lowe in southern Arizona. He was chased by Apaches, he says, and lost his horse.

Good:  We're at peace with the Apache, Angie says. We have a treaty.

Bad:  Her husband Ed was orphaned in a wagon-train massacre, she says. This gratuitous reference to a massacre does nothing to advance Ed Lowe's character. It merely establishes that Indians are bad.

Mixed:  There's trouble brewing in the Apache lodges, says Hondo. Vittorio has called a war council.

We've always gotten along splendidly with the Apaches, says Angie.

I've seen Vittorio, says Hondo. He has 40 scalps on his horse.

That was before the treaty, says Angie.

"We broke that treaty," says Hondo. "Us whites. There's no word in the Apache language for lie, and they've been lied to. And if they rise, there won't be a white left in the territory."

This is a complex exchange, especially for the year 1953. It superficially credits the Apache with being peaceful. But Hondo delivers his lines with more authority and credibility than the naive Mrs. Lowe. He's the one you believe.

Even if the Apache were peaceful, they'll act warlike throughout this movie. The message most viewers will take away is that the Apache were peaceful in theory but warlike in reality.

Bad:  Hondo's dog can smell Indians, Hondo says. They're trained by an Indian hitting them with a switch when they're puppies.

I don't know anything about Indian dog-training techniques, but this sounds implausible to me. I've never heard of a dog that could sniff people by race. Moreover, Indians supposedly bathed more often than whites, so they'd have less of a odor. The whole idea seems racist.

Mixed:  "I'm part Indian," says Hondo, "and I can smell you when I'm downwind of you." John Wayne doesn't look like he's part Indian, but maybe it's a small part.

Good:  Hondo makes a flute for Angie's boy. "Used to make 'em when I was living with the Mescalero," he says. "My squaw used to make them for every kid in the lodge." This is a good bit of dialog with no stereotypical references to tipis or the like. No points deducted for the politically incorrect use of "squaw" in 1953.

Good:  Hondo lived five years with the Apache, he says. His Apache wife died. Her name was Destarte, which means "morning." Hondo waxes poetic about how the word "morning" doesn't capture all the beautiful nuances of Destarte's name.

Act 2
Bad:  Hondo returns to the nearby fort to report his findings. Meanwhile, dozens of Apaches on horseback arrive at Angie's ranch. They're announced by martial music: trumpets and drums. Vittorio and others are in war paint. They talk like Tonto.

Bad:  Vittorio is played by Michael Pate. He's Australian and looks about as Indian as Iron Eyes Cody or Ned Romero.

Mixed:  Angie's boy stands up to an Apache. Vittorio responds by pricking the boy's thumb. "Him now blood brother," says Vittorio. "I call him Small Warrior. Him belong Moon Dog Lodge, Chiricahua Apache. You care for him well. You now mother Chiricahua warrior. Live safely here." Vittorio acts like a semi-civilized man, not a beast-like savage. But his Tonto talk is atrocious.

Good:  "My sons are dead," says Vittorio. "White men kill them." Vittorio gets a lot of face-time to establish himself as a full-fledged character. He gives a good reason for his warlike behavior.

Bad:  From the waist up, the Indians dress like Apaches. But they have bare legs rather than leggings, which makes them look primitive. I believe most Apaches wore pants rather than loincloths.

Bad:  The Apache get ready to go on the warpath. They put on warpaint to beat of a tom-tom. Vittorio launches a charge of perhaps 100 Indians.

Mixed:  At the ranch again, Vittorio says Angie's boy needs a father. He offers several Apaches as a husband. Again, this scene suggests the Apache are reasonable humans rather than wild-eyed savages. But I doubt the Apache would've offered themselves to a white woman who was ensconced at her ranch and had no desire to leave.

Bad:  On the way back from the fort, Hondo sees Apaches attack Ed Lowe and partner. He saves Lowe, who draws on him. Hondo has to shoot him in self-defense.

Now the Apaches attack and chase Hondo. They utter war whoops and wave spears. They finally catch him.

Apparently they haven't heard that rifles or bows and arrows are more effective weapons at a distance. But gosh, they sure look dramatic brandishing their spears at Hondo. They look like wild-eyed savages.

Mixed:  The Apache stake Hondo out. A brave brings a firebrand and drops burning ashes on him. Hondo is saved because he has a tintype of Angie's boy, who is Vittorio's "blood brother."

I don't doubt that the Apache tortured some people. I don't know if they would've tortured Hondo in this scenario. Like other scenes, this scene shows a mixture of cruelty and decency.

Good:  Hondo makes it back to the ranch, where Angie claims him as her husband.

Vittorio returns with 8-9 braves. He asks Hondo to lie for him—to tell the soldiers that the Apache have left. Hondo refuses and Vittorio leaves.

Vittorio didn't expect him to lie, Hondo explains to Angie. It was a test of his character.

Act 3
Good:  Soldiers arrive to evacuate Angie and her son. They call Vittorio a coward who's taken many scalps. Hondo says he hasn't seen any cowardice in Vittorio.

Bad:  The Apache chase the troops removing the settlers. The troops circle the wagons. As an Apache woman said in "The Apache," a DVD featurette, the Apache didn't chase wagon trains on the open plains. If they had wanted to attack, they would've hid in a canyon and ambushed the wagon train as it passed.

This point also applies to a key scene in Volume 1 of the COWBOYS & ALIENS graphic novel. As I thought but couldn't prove, that scene was false.

Bad:  The Apache have Hondo and company surrounded. How do the good guys escape? Hondo simply decides to lead the wagons out of the circle and flee again.

This is sheer stupidity. If circling the wagons was the right strategy, Hondo should've stuck with it. If it was the wrong strategy, he shouldn't have done it in the first place. There's no way that alternating between strategies is better than picking the best strategy.

Luckily, the Apache back off until their leaders spur them on. In other words, the filmmakers rectify Hondo's stupid choice by making the Apache too stupid to take advantage of it. These Indians have no idea how to outfox Hondo.

Bad:  Incredibly, after fleeing a short distance, the wagons go into a circle again. Even more incredibly, after taking fire a short time, they break out of the circle again. Hondo apparently has no idea what to do, yet the Apaches are too lame to act on it.

Bad:  In closeups showing the soldiers, a few are killed by Apache bullets or arrows. But whenever the longshots show the whooping Indians, they aren't using rifles or bows and arrows. They're waving their damn spears.

It's clear the filmmakers are trying to have it both ways. The Apache are deadly enough to kill soldiers with guns and arrows, but they're primitive enough to wave ineffectual (but dramatic-looking) spears.

Perhaps not surprisingly, John Ford took over from director John Farrow at this point and supervised the final flight scenes. That's easy to believe because the Apache suddenly lose all indicators of humanity. For the last few minutes, they're as mindlessly savage as any movie Indians.

Bad:  Hondo kills the Indian who's taken over for Vittorio in hand-to-hand combat. "Leader's dead," he tells the others. "They'll powwow and pick a new one. We're out of trouble if we get a move on."

Somehow I doubt the Apache would end an attack because they lost their leader. But movie Indians aren't that smart or sophisticated. So a deus ex machina basically saves the white folks. They don't earn a victory but they get one anyway.

Final tally: 12 bads, 6 goods, and 5 mixed. The bads have it. As a movie featuring Indians, Hondo is somewhat more progressive than older Westerns, but it's still bad overall.

As for the rest of Hondo, it gets points for the unconventional romance and for Hondo's sympathy for the Apache. It loses points for its Native stereotypes and the all-out ending. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

Related links
Straight shootin' with the Duke
The best Indian movies

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2008 by Robert Schmidt.

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