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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Television Review: HONDO: "Hondo and the Death Drive" (1967)

"Your lives are meaningless compared to HONDO!"  

HONDO: "Hondo and the Death Drive" (1967 ABC/MGM/Batjac Productions) Season One, Episode 13.  Original Air Date: December 1, 1967.  Starring Ralph Taeger as Hondo Lane, Noah Beery, Jr. as Buffalo Baker, William Bryant as Colonel Crook, Glenn Langan as Victor Tribolet.  Guest Stars: Alan Hale, Jr. as Ben Cobb, L. Q. Jones as Allie, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as Sancho, J. Pat O'Malley as Rufus, Reed Hadley as Morgan Slade, Terry Wilson as Dakota, X Brands as Coro, Ted Gehring as Kemp, Dave Cass as Harper, John Mitchum as Bartender, Bill Catching as Saloon Brawler, Roy Sickner as Cox, Tom Steele as Hudson, Jeff Morris as Galin.  Written by Peter Germano.  Directed by William Witney.

Series overview and introduction to the HONDO episode guide is at this link.

A cattle drive delivering to the Pinto Basin Apache reservation is lost to a stampede in a storm, forcing Colonel Crook to scramble for beef.  Heading the cattlemen's association in the Basin, Ben Cobb tries to extort too high a price to provide it.  Rationalizing that marbled steak and wool provides more overall value and sheep will be easier to keep, Crook purchases 500 head from Slade and orders Hondo and Buffalo to oversee the delivery.  Meanwhile, Cobb plots to stop them from reaching their destination by any means necessary.

Hondo and the Death Drive marks an intriguing change in direction for the series, with Fort Lowell moving from focal point to springboard and the Dows receding into the background.  In fact, both Kathie Browne and Buddy Foster appeared for the last time in Hondo and the Ghost of Ed Dow.  Beefed up is Noah Beery's role, with Hondo Lane and Buffalo Baker receiving road assignments in each of the final five installments.  This time, they head west to the Pinto Basin.

Buffalo: "Colonel, I don't even wear wool socks!"
Crook: "You don't wear any socks!"

The last and best of the trio of episodes directed by William Witney (DARKTOWN STRUTTERS), Hondo and the Death Drive is a tailor made project for the former Republic serial specialist.  The action isn't quite nonstop, but the ambush or round of fisticuffs is always right around the corner.  Jones, Beery, Taeger and Wilson all put up their dukes before the titular journey even starts, with the last two seem mighty close to getting kicked by a horse in their fracas:

Witney really brings his 'A' game once the scouts and shepherds hit the road.  Fistfights give way to strategic ambushes and counterattacks, with weapons ranging from saltpeter to molotov cocktails.  A bottle of Bay Rum comes in handy for Buffalo at one point.  Blustering Cobb has seemingly endless avenues for sabotage: while it's never stated, it sure seems highly probable that the corrupt cattleman had something to do with that stampede that caused Crook's predicament.

Writer Peter Germano (The Art Lovers, for MAVERICK) works hand in glove with the director.  Amidst the well-paced activity, Germano's efficient teleplay allows us to get to know Lane's partners in the unlikely drive.  We learn about various methods that they cope with their losses and longings: Sancho's wife, Dakota's father, Rufus's son.

Slade: "One day, there won't be any need for Indian reservations."
Hondo: "Mr. Slade, there's no need for 'em right now."

Succinctly, Germano also makes pertinent points about the Apache "getting the dirty end of the stick" in both food and shelter.  Taeger's blunt Hondo is the perfect vehicle to deliver them non-intrusively, and the actor's expressions say it all before his sparse responses to the justifications he hears from Crook and Slade.

Practically every HONDO offers a top notch guest cast, and Hondo and the Death Drive offers another plethora for cultists.  In his first post-Skipper dramatic role, Alan Hale, Jr. really digs into Ben Cobb's avarice and lack of conscience yet remains charismatic enough to believably draw in cattlemen and Native Americans alike in his glad-handing.  Keeping Cobb treacherous without a lapse into caricature, Hale's a fine choice to bring him to life.

After guest starring in THE REBEL and BRANDED, the ubiquitous L. Q. Jones completes his Fenady trifecta as Allie, the accomplice who almost learns too late that Cobb doesn't intend to leave loose ends.  The part is somewhat thankless (he takes punches from both principals), but Jones portrays Allie's initial leeriness (greed eventually reassures him) and post-attack P.T.S.D. effectively.

Nearly three decades after starring in ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION, Reed Hadley reunites with Witney in what would turn out to be one of his final roles.  X Brands (YANCY DERRINGER) is the renegade Apache hired by Cobb, and David S. Cass makes one of his earliest appearances as Cobb's right hand cowpuncher.  The always looming John Wayne connection is alive and well with character actor extraordinaire Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (CHISUM) and Terry Wilson having plenty of dialogue fourteen years after doing stuntwork on the 1953 HONDO.

Wilson is joined by a who's who of stunt coordinators: Tom Steele, Wally West and Bill Catching also have speaking parts.  It isn't that big a surprise to see the last two uncredited, but it is unusual to see John Mitchum missing from the cast list.  Glenn Langan is yet another CHISUM alumni here, and his always despicable Tribolet makes a fifth and final series appearance.  Would it surprise you to learn that he and Cobb are fast friends?

"I guess this country's big enough for sheep and cattle, Mr. Lane."
"I reckon they don't build 'em any bigger."

The final showdown offers a neat twist, with Cobb running afoul of his own scheme thanks to Hondo's creativity.  Confronted with the final failure of his scheme, the heretofore verbose magnate can only manage repeated and unheeded commands to "shut up" in the presence of his manipulated minions.  Unimpeded in the least by its worthy underlying statement and boasting solid work on both sides of the camera, Hondo and the Death Drive is a terrific yarn from start to finish.


Indicative of the greater emphasis on Beery's role, it's a close competition between Hondo and Buffalo this time.  However, Lane gets a 4-3 edge in the final tally.  Hondo kicks the crap out of initially unruly Dakota after taking over as drive boss, then subdues a renegade Apache in hand to hand combat during the raid and dispatches both Cobb and his henchman with a single punch each.  Not to be outdone, Baker impressively handles the younger, larger Allie at Fort Lowell's cantina in the teaser.  Later, Baker dispatches a brawler objecting to his sheepish scent at Mitchum's, then scores his own one-punch knockout engineering Hondo's jailbreak.


Before hitting the trail, Buffalo tangles with sheep man Allie in Fort Lowell's watering hole, which only loses a single chair in the skirmish.  Mitchum's barroom is even less scathed later.


The always versatile Sam tries his paw at sheep herding and makes a new girlfriend after meeting Sancho's sheephound Maria.  He damned near stays behind with her at the fade-out, even.  Not that he neglects his usual duties: Sam helps Sancho discover the stashed whisky, and finds that one saboteur (Harper) who is afraid of dogs once again during the attempt to poison the waterhole.


Does Hondo and the Death Drive sound exciting?  It should.  Top notch old school entertainment, the first of a final quintet of episodes taking Hondo, Buffalo and Sam on weekly road trips is one of the finest installments, period.  Germano's economical writing perfectly complements Witney's ability to stage action sequences.  As rewatchable a segment as any in this long underappreciated series.   (**** out of four)

HONDO airs Sunday mornings at 11:15 A.M. Eastern, 10:15 A.M. Central on GetTV.

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