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Thursday 4 June 2009

Book of the film: Hondo

‘A man ought to do what he thinks is best.’ – Hondo Lane.

‘Hondo Lane was a big man… with the lean hard-boned face of the desert rider… His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard and dangerous. Whatever wells of gentleness might lie within him were guarded and deep.’

Hondo and his trusty dog Sam are being stalked by two Apache warriors. He chooses the time and place for the showdown. This action-filled beginning is dropped from the film. Shortly afterwards, deprived of his horse, he wanders into a deep fertile basin and a lonely small ranch. This is where the film opens – and it works. Hondo meets up with Mrs Angie Lowe and her young son Johnny, both struggling to keep the ranch going in the absence of any man. Hondo befriends them and helps out. He warns them that Vittoro is on the warpath but Angie says they’ll be fine, they got along with the Apache. Hondo was half-Apache so understood; he borrowed one of Angie’s horses and left for the fort with despatches. It was a sad leavetaking because there was strong affection between them.

There is the complication of Angie’s husband and in the film this sticks closely to the book. L’Amour also wrote several pages about the Cavalry Company C, the lead up to their massacre; this was neatly discarded in the film script, Hondo simply pulling from his saddlebags the Company’s flag which he took off the Indian braves he killed (before the film began!)

Additional complications arise when Vittoro turns up wanting to adopt young Johnny as his son. He also declares that Angie must take a wife – an Apache brave. She has till the planting rains come to decide which warrior she would accept…

How the drama is played out between the pioneer woman, the gunman and the Apache warrior makes for tense reading. This is such a good yarn that it’s quite humbling to note that it was L’Amour’s first novel, published in 1953. He went on to produce over 120 books with sales in the 300 million range. The film, starring John Wayne and Geraldine Page (making her film debut), was made in the same year. Other actors included Wayne’s pal, Ward Bond and pre-Gunsmoke James Arness. Hondo’s dog Sam was played by Lassie!

Hondo has great characterisation, powerful visuals of the stark Arizona land and moments of understated tenderness. The book could have been written for Wayne as Hondo exemplified the star’s values – honesty, loyalty, bravery, self-reliance and independence. As the Duke’s son Michael said, ‘What you see on the screen is what John Wayne was off the screen. It is how he lived his life.’

L’Amour honed his craft by writing many short stories before embarking on a novel-length tale. Sadly, there is no longer such a good market of pulp magazines for new writers to supply, where they can develop and improve their writing.

On a few occasions, L’Amour jumps character point of view between Hondo and Angie, Hondo and Ed Lowe etc in the same scene, but it’s forgivable because the characters and story smoothly move you on. Even if the viewpoint is omniscient, I found those particular jumps jarred a little. I also felt that the fast-paced ending seems a little rushed but it’s satisfying nevertheless. It was interesting to see that the film’s final confrontation between the Apache and the settlers and cavalry was lengthier than in the reading; much of the violence wasn’t actually shown in any graphic detail, which probably had something to do with the film code of the time.

It’s quite understandable why this book marked the beginning of L’Amour’s successful career as a novelist. You know and feel that L’Amour, like his character Hondo, has integrity and honour and it shines through. As Angie’s thoughts emphasise: ‘… this also her father had given her: reserve of judgment, and to judge no man or woman by a grouping, but each on his own character, his own ground.’

Wayne was already a big box office star. This film did his career no harm at all and the Hondo Lane character can rightly join the Ringo Kid, Ethan Edwards and Rooster Cogburn in the Wayne hall of fame. Bearing in mind this film was released in 1953, its treatment of the Apache was honest and sympathetic – as was L’Amour’s.

L’Amour states in the Foreword: ‘I do not need to go to Thermopylae or the Plains of Marathon for heroism. I find it here on the frontier.’ As do we, his readers.


Cullen Gallagher said...

Both the book and the movie have been on my list for far too long - I think I need to pick them up sometime real soon. I didn't realize this was L'Amour's first novel - quite the debut!

Are there any collections of his early short stories?

Nik Morton said...

Yes, too many to enumerate here, Cullen. But there's a comprehensive list in the Bantam edition I've pictured.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Course there's some contention over how much of the book was original to L'amour and not lifted from the screenplay based on his original short story. Either way - it's a bloody fine book.

Barbara Martin said...

This was an excellent review and I'm thinking of rereading some L'Amour books.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks, Barbara. There are certainly plenty of novels to choose from!