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Friday, March 24, 2017

Television Review: HONDO: "Hondo and the Gladiators" (1967)

"Your lives are meaningless compared to HONDO!"

HONDO: "Hondo and the Gladiators" (1967 ABC-TV/Batjac/MGM) Episode 15; Original Air Date December 15, 1967.  Starring Ralph Taeger as Hondo Lane, Noah Beery Jr. as Buffalo Baker, Gary Clarke as Captain Richards.  Guest Starring Claude Akins as Brock, Barton MacLane as Markham, Jamie Farr as Smithers, Richard Hale as Jamarro, George Keymas as Nakka, James Chandler as the Sheriff, Phil Arnold as Bob, Montie Plyler as Jake, John Wood as Goya, Lydia Goya as Lydia, Mike Masters as The Bully and Chanin Hale as Carrot Top.  Directed by Eddie Saeta.  Written by Turnley Walker.

Welcome to the Horn Section's contribution to the Third Annual Favourite Episode Blogathon, hosted by our friend Terence Towles Canote at his wonderful blog, A Shroud of ThoughtsCheck out all the entries for the 2017's edition, and while you're there, check out Terence's archives as well--A Shroud of Thoughts has been around since 2004 and the archives are stuffed with goodies.

For my contribution this year, I'm skipping ahead in the our
HONDO episode guide to my personal favorite of the 17 installments of that sadly short-lived series: the one that best exemplifies the bond between Hondo Lane and his loyal dog Sam.

Series Overview for HONDO: TV's Unlikeliest Cult Hit at this link  

Hondo Lane's latest scouting assignment takes him into New Mexico Territory, where settlers have angered Mescalero Apache Chief Jamarro by moving into Big Rock Valley before a peace treaty has been signed.   The only white man Jamarro trusts, Hondo reassures the Chief that his terms will be honored.  To seal the deal, Lane promises to bring peace envoy Markham back to the Mescalero camp to sign the paper in a proper ceremony.  Complicating matters, Jamarro is presiding over a restless tribe that includes several renegades (led by Nakka) who would prefer to leave the agreement unsigned.

Awaiting the arrival of Markham's party in the nearest town, Hondo has a run-in with Brock, owner and operator of The Gladiators: a traveling "fighting man, fighting dog" show.  Behind Lane's back, Brock's reigning champion is set loose on an unsuspecting Sam--and soundly defeated.  When Hondo rebuffs Brock's offer to buy Sam (and as usual denies ownership), the bare-knuckle brawler drugs and kidnaps Sam to "train" him for pit fighting.  Hondo discovers his canine sidekick is missing just as Captain Richards arrives with an impatient Markham in tow for the urgently needed peace summit.

"If it's a choice between losin' Markham and losin' Sam, Sam wins!"

Despite Hondo's gruff exterior and the fierce independence he insists on for himself and his constant canine companion, Hondo and the Gladiators demonstrates just how much Sam means to him when the chips are down.  Markham promises to bring the wrath of Washington down on Fort Lowell if he cannot get cooperation, and with a Mescalero Apache war all but certain if this envoy fails, D.C. might be the least of the Captain's worries.  Even so, for Hondo anything is worth risking to rescue Sam from a sadistic captor. 

"You're gettin' soft, too.  Too many table scraps!"

From Lane's deadpan monologue to Sam in the hotel room to his quiet desperation as he searches for his stolen pal, Hondo and the Gladiators is probably Ralph Taeger's finest episode as an actor.  Unfortunately, Hondo's oft-repeated refrain that Sam "belongs to no one but himself" is taken literally outside of the friendly confines of Fort Lowell, and the guilt that Lane feels after failing to realize this--while predictably unstated--is palpable throughout. 

"That's my dog.  You're not gonna fight him."

It's an overused term for sure, but after fifteen episodes and at least twice as many disavowals of ownership, the line truly speaks volumes.  Taeger delivers it perfectly, and the stoic star also expresses just the right touch of wordless panic when it appears that the sadistic showman might have succeeded in brainwashing Sam during "training".

"I don't give a holler down a dry well what one man does with another, but settin' dumb animals on one another isn't my idea of a sport!"

Disclaiming possession and making Sam get his own food?  Might make Hondo Lane a less than ideal human companion to modern eyes, but consider Brock, who is more than happy to own the animal.  As long as it is profitable, that is: "I got no use for a loser" is his response as his former champ flees when Sam defends himself.  Brock cages, tethers and muzzles Sam to ensure that the dog is deprived of food and water until "after his lesson"--and to eliminate any possible self-defense from the canine when he's being whipped with that chain.

Brock's cruelty to animals is only the most disgusting example of the man's gutlessness.  Veteran heavy Claude Akins skillfully essays this manipulative huckster, undermining Brock's courageous image in the pit with a constant (yet subtle) lack thereof out of it.  Brock takes off his jovial public mask in private to assistant Smithers, terrorizing the timid employee as much as his unfortunate dogs.  But this supposed tough man meticulously avoids a confrontation with Lane during Sam's abduction and noticeably stays put at the bar while ladies onstage are sexually harassed and their impresario assaulted (Hondo defends the damsels in distress).

Inside the pit, well, I did say it's an image of toughness.  It's hard not to notice that Brock twice tries to goad him into challenging for the "big prize money", but wants no part of Hondo Lane in an uncontrolled setting.  You guessed it: Brock has flunky Jake ready to surreptitiously blackjack anyone who gets too close to besting the traveling showman for that reward. 

"Sorta sickenin', I'd say."

With those words, the Sheriff made his frustration clear at his lack of legal grounds to stop the blood "sport", an unusual topic for a prime time show to be addressing now, much less 1967.  Hondo and the Gladiators makes a solid plea for humane treatment of animals both domestic and wild (the wolf-dog hybrid that Brock has trapped to provide Sam with an opponent), and since Hondo Lane is making it, that statement is appropriately forthright and succinct.   When Sam draws a bettor, the gambler draws exactly what you'd expect once Emberato finds out.

"Soon they will ride into Half Moon Pass...and they will never ride out!"

The audience is so invested in the fate of our four-legged scene stealer that it's easy to forget that the lives of Hondo, Buffalo, Captain Richards and Markham are also hanging in the balance with mutineer Nakka waiting in ambush.  Granted, Walker's secondary storyline isn't exactly new to the series: a wise old peace seeking Chief is being undermined by an insurgent in the tribe who thirsts for conflict. 

It's been a primary plot twice already with Hondo's father-in-law Vittoro (Hondo and the War Cry, Hondo and the War Hawks), but the writer gives us a new wrinkle that forces Hondo Lane to be in two places at once.  Unlike Vittoro, Jamarro trusts Lane and only Lane, having never met Buffalo, Richards or anyone else from Fort Lowell.  With the premature presence of unwelcome settlers, Hondo's credentials mandate his presence for talks that cannot fail.

Turnley Walker was best known for his non-fiction books (including RISE UP AND WALK, the true story of the author's triumph over polio) but occasionally wrote teleplays, including a 1956 adaptation of his best-known work for GOODYEAR PLAYHOUSE.   Hondo and the Gladiators was Walker's final TV script and contains possibly the longest teaser of its era, with a full ten minutes of action taking place before the opening credits.

Above average plotting and unique structure enhance the viewing experience, but Walker's dialogue needed another draft or two.  Hondo's stilted replies during his initial encounter with Brock have the effect of making the usually astute scout come across like a dunce ("talk to the dog!") for not grasping the obvious danger that this showman presents to Sam.  Claude Akins isn't always served well either.  Akins does a faultless job of making you hate Brock, but is hindered by unsubtle lines (i.e. "I do what pleases me!" and "I treat my help and my dogs the same!") spelling out what we can see for ourselves.

Unlike Walker, Eddie Saeta wasn't a HONDO newcomer; the longtime assistant director had served in that capacity for the majority of the show's first fourteen episodes.  Saeta went into Hondo and the Gladiators with thirty years' experience as an A.D., but this installment was one of only three times that Saeta took the director's chair in his long Hollywood career.  He clearly relished the opportunity.

The director's first challenge is staging the opening skirmish between Sam and Brock's reigning champ.  Thanks to tight editing and effective use of sound, Saeta presents the scuffle effectively, and his direction of the extras is impressively detailed.  On the surface, the impromptu dogfight draws an enthusiastic crowd full of eager gamblers, but take a close look at the extras: the gathering also includes plenty of women and children with unhappy faces.  Those not shielding their eyes, anyway.  Brock, doesn't care, though he doesn't drum up much business in this locale.  (Later, in Brewster, the more fervent crowd is almost 100% male; I saw one woman holding a parasol in freeze frame once.)

Heads thrown back to show their features....

The director stages an enjoyable rendition of Hangtown Girls by professional dancer Lydia Goya and the super-flirtatious Chanin Hale in the saloon.  It's welcome relief from the tension in the desert involving Hondo's search for his lost pal, Brock's stomach-churning "training", and Nakka's well-staged ambush on the peace mission.  With a long association with The Three Stooges in his thirty-year background, it isn't surprising that Saeta provides the occasional comedic touch to lighten up this tense story.  And this moment aside.....

....he doesn't overdo it, making nary a false move for forty minutes.  For my money, Saeta is pitching a shutout going into the final inning.

"Sign your paper with all the ceremony you want.  I'm goin' to Brewster!"

The secondary plot resolved, Hondo races to Brewster, where Battling Brock has dispatched all local challengers and is hyping his main event, between a half-wolf  "brought in from the high country" to face "this savage fighting dog you see here":

After Hondo's arrival, Brock lies to the Sheriff about ownership and then distracts Sam by rattling that chain when Hondo tries to call his dog.  With no other recourse, Hondo challenges Brock to a pit fight with Sam's fate at stake.

After a full hour of Brock's villainy we've been looking forward to a comeuppance, but unfortunately Saeta finally stumbles in the final act.  Brock seizes the upper hand with the first two knockdowns, but then gets launched backwards and airborne when he attempts a finishing kick to the head.  Brock's move makes little sense in terms of strategy (he's way out in front) or physics, so while it looks cool on film, it's still distracting.  Hondo can't seem to connect, so Brock's repeated attempts to cheat (i.e. an attempted blackjacking by Jake while Brock has his fingers in Hondo's eyes) make about as much sense as Dick Dastardly's. 

Yeah, Saeta lays things on a little thick, but his execution is far from terrible--just frustratingly inconsistent.  When Hondo Lane breaks out of Brock's eye gouge and finally lands a solid right cross to the scoundrel's face, it's definitely a cheer out loud moment.

Hey, don't take my word for it: check out the reaction from Brewster's Sheriff.

Brock has a fight on his hands now, and all the while, Sam is barking like crazy while chained and muzzled on the edge of the pit.  The landings are a little more evenly distributed, and Brock appears a less sure of the outcome.  Ultimately, though, this isn't really Hondo Lane's fight: Brock's ass belongs to the victim of his maltreatment, right?

It's after a Hondo tackle that Sam finally breaks that chain, forcing Brock to face his own "killer" creation--and forcing us to face the limits of our suspension of disbelief.  After all, Sam is still muzzled, so how much damage can he do?  Pro that he is, Akins makes an admirable effort to sell it.  This is a look of terror:

Brock cries and pleads for help, taking his cowardice to new depths.  To be fair, we could possibly believe that Sam could be scratching him, if we didn't see otherwise.  Unfortunately after the canine responds to Hondo's command and disengages, Saeta makes a poor choice in showing not just one, but multiple inserts showing us that Brock literally doesn't have a scratch on him afterwards.

When the Sheriff tells us later in that coda that Brock was "mostly in one piece", well--duh!  Showing him face down or obscuring the view enough with his hands to deny a good look would have allowed .  To be fair, it's a truly fitting final image before the fadeout to see Hondo liberating his pal from that muzzle.

Hondo and the Gladiators also boasts the show's usual quota of impressive guest stars, and then some. 

Guest starring for the second consecutive episode, Jamie Farr gets a much meatier part this time as the conscience of this installment. 

Moonlighting from his regular gig on I DREAM OF JEANNIE, Barton MacLane is at his grousing best as the skeptical peace envoy. 

Phil Arnold (like the director, a veteran of numerous Three Stooges shorts) gets some light moments at the Impresario presenting those Boston Belles, and James Chandler makes an impression as the humane, fair-minded lawman.  As mentioned earlier, Lydia Goya and Chanin Hale put on quite a show at the saloon.  If it's possible to make up for Kathie Browne's absence from this one, they do.

Like the show's hero, Hondo and the Gladiators is ragged and unpoised at times, but wins you over when all is said and done.  Just like countless "champions" who preceded him, Sam has been drugged, stolen, beaten--thoroughly abused by his capturer.  And yet, which of those acts motivates Sam to finally get loose and attack the sadist?  None of the above: it's seeing Brock hitting Hondo.  If it's possible for a television show to truly summarizes why a dog is man's best friend, I think Hondo and the Gladiators makes that statement better than any LASSIE or RIN TIN TIN episode.  If we're including animation, I'd even put it up there with FUTURAMA's Jurassic Bark.

For his part, Hondo returns the favor.  Chanin Hale's showgirl takes a shine to the scout while he's enjoying a beer during rehearsals, and Hondo seems to be reciprocating.

But just as things are starting to get interesting, he hears the commotion outside, and from the sounds of it, Sam is in trouble.....

......naturally meaning that the beautiful redhead will just have to wait.  Sorry, Carrot Top.

Maybe if I'd modestly lifted my linen....


Too bad that Brock didn't get to face the Hondo Lane we saw before he made peace with his past in Hondo and the Superstition Massacre.  The traveling showman was clearly ahead on points when the pit showdown came to an abrupt halt. Understandable, given that Hondo was coming off a hangover and an emotionally draining day that climaxed with a life-or-death battle with Nakka's forces.  Hondo also took a punch from a frustrated Buffalo in the desert, but lit into Mike Masters' aptly named Bully twice: once for egging on Sam's scuffle (and making money off it), and once for harassing the Boston Belles during their performance. 


Fort Lowell's cantina gets a rest, since Hondo and Buffalo are on the road.  But Hondo's subduing of the Bully results in a broken table, and free whiskey for the night from the barkeep.  A much more good-natured response than the property destruction usually gets.  Then again, Lane was protecting the dance hall girls, and they were bringing in a crowd.


What more needs to be said?   This one's all about Sam.  The teaser shows you just what a tough hombre Sam is: he runs what has to be dozens of miles accompanying Hondo on his journey in the desert heat, and after the briefest of breaks, has enough left in the tank to best Brock's trained killer.


A few instances of subpar execution and dialogue aren't fatal flaws to a uniquely structured, emotionally resonant episode.  Powered by excellent work by Taeger, Akins and Farr, and energetic direction by Saeta, Hondo and the Gladiators is memorable and touching in the end.  Rewatchable, too.  It isn't the best episode of HONDO, but for the insight into the hero's relationship with both of his sidekicks, it is my personal favorite.  (*** out of four)

HONDO airs every Sunday morning at 10:15 AM Central on getTV. 


Caftan Woman said...

H'm. It is interesting, isn't it, that favourites and bests rarely align.

You make a great case for your favourite. Emotion, and pooches, always win.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I have to say I do enjoy your write-ups on Hondo and I definitely have to figure out a way to check out the show sometime! This episode sounds particularly interesting, especially given how much I love dogs. I suspect Sam would be one of my favourite characters in a Western!Brown was my favourite character on The Westerner. Thank you so much for taking part in the blogathon!