In hopes of making it more popular, ABC even released a version in theaters, 1967's Hondo and the Apaches, two episodes combined to make a 97-minute feature length movie. VHS tapes are getting harder to find, but thankfully I was able to tape it off of TCM last week. The movie is the first two episodes of the series edited together into one story, serving as an introduction to all the key players and setting. Certain changes were made to transfer the novel from a movie to a TV show, but overall, it got the right spirit of L'Amour's source novel. It's long since forgotten, but I'll always love the old show and the movie version.
Riding through the Southwest, gunslinger Hondo Lane (Ralph Taeger) is recruited by General Crook (William Bryant) to scout for the U.S. Cavalry in the region. Lane had an Apache wife prior to the Civil War and even lived among the Apaches for years, making him an obvious choice to work as a scout. He somewhat unwillingly takes the job and brings his orders to Fort Lowell where a new commander, Capt. Richards (Gary Clarke), is in command. Richards is in a corner as a group of miners, led by a man named Gallagher (Robert Taylor), cries out for protection while the Apaches are on the warpath. Hondo might have a solution though and heads out to search for Apache chief, Vittoro (Michael Pate), to see if he can arrange a peace.
First on TV in 1967, Hondo came along at the tail end of the hugely successful, very popular western TV phase American audiences clamored for. It didn't have a ton of success -- thanks to some unfortunate competition on other networks -- and was canceled after just one season. Indoor scenes were usually handled in studios, but for the most part, Hondo filmed on location in the deserts the story was set in. The location shooting definitely benefited the show in its too short run. But overall -- whether as a movie or a TV show -- it does a lot of things right in making an authentic, enjoyable western.
Stepping into John Wayne's shoes was most likely a tough task for Ralph Taeger, but he puts his own spin on the Hondo Lane character. Taeger was only in a handful of movies and a few more TV shows which is unfortunate because he's got some talent. He benefits obviously from L'Amour's creation of such a cool, badass western hero. Taeger makes Hondo a little laid back while also being willing to stick up for himself or what he believes in. Hondo Lane is very capable of taking care of himself -- with gun or fist -- and has to be living in such a dangerous situation. Too bad Taeger never became such a big star because he comes across as incredibly likable but also a really tough, hard-edged western scout.
Taylor and Michael Rennie helped open the show as guest stars, giving the movie/show some credibility with an otherwise little known cast. Neither actor is given a ton to do, but they look to be having fun with their supporting parts. Also joining the show's regular cast is Kathie Browne as Angie Dowd, a married shopkeeper in an abusive marriage who Hondo saves from Apache attack, Noah Beery Jr as Buffalo Baker, a fellow scout around for some comedic relief, and 10-year old Buddy Foster as Johnny Dowd, Angie's son who idolizes Hondo. All three characters are from L'Amour's novel with a few tweaks here and there for the sake of a TV show instead of a 90-minute movie like Wayne's 1953 version.
As for the theater version, it is a good introduction to the TV show. It is not always the fastest-moving story, but an action scene is never too far away. The best is saved for the end as the Apaches launch an all-out attack on Gallagher's mine. Getting there is a lot of the fun though thanks to Taeger in the lead as all-around badass Hondo Lane and a solid supporting cast. I'm holding out for some sort of DVD release, but I'm not counting on it. For now, I'll keep on looking and remember how much I liked the show growing up.
Hondo and the Apaches <--- opening credits (1967): ***/****