The frontier story-teller
Louis L’Amour (1908 – 1988) is an enormously popular writer all over the world, with over 100 novels and 250 short stories still in print, and is one of the most famous Western authors of all. He had an interesting life, traveling the world as a seaman and being a successful professional boxer. He had read Henty as a boy and was always a lover of historical tales of adventure. He started publishing stories in pulp magazines in the late 1930s but wrote only one Western tale before the Second World War. After war service in the Army transport corps, he published more Westerns, often under the name Jim Mayo. He was also contracted to write stories for the successful Hopalong Cassidy franchise, as Tex Burns.
The short story The Gift of Cochise was published in Colliers on July 5, 1952 and read by John Wayne and Robert Fellows, who bought the screen rights from L'Amour for $4,000. Wayne’s friend and close collaborator James Edward Grant was hired to write a screenplay based on this story, changing the main character's name from Ches Lane to Hondo Lane. The movie Hondo was shot in 3D and came out in 1953. L'Amour retained the right to novelize the screenplay and did so, though the screenplay differed substantially from the original story. This was published as Hondo in 1953 and released on the same day the film opened with a puff from John Wayne stating that Hondo was the finest Western Wayne had ever read.
Wayne as Hondo (with Pal as Sam)
So L’Amour’s first Western novel was really a novelization of a film. Of course he went on to become, with Zane Grey, probably the most famous Western story-teller of all.
L'Amour's first novel
Hondo the novel is a good read. Grant had done a very fine job on the screenplay and Wayne made a magnificent Hondo Lane. The movie was the new Batjac company’s response to the hard-bitten, tough-guy adult Western movies of James Stewart and Anthony Mann. (Although in the novel Hondo wins his saddle for bronc riding, in the film it is his rifle that bears the name-plate, won in a competition of marksmanship. You don’t need to know much about Stewart/Mann Westerns to get that reference!) But L’Amour also did very well in turning the movie back into a story on the printed page.
The book format allowed the writer to include episodes which are only referred to in the movie, notably an introductory chapter in which we read what happened before Hondo walks up to the Lowe farm, which was the opening of the film, and an account of the destruction by Apaches of Company C – again, Lane only refers to this in the movie, as he brings back the company’s guidon to the fort. Otherwise, though, the action of the book follows the screen Hondo very closely.
L’Amour’s style is semi-poetic and does verge, occasionally, on purple prose. But you do get a real sense of the beauty of the harsh Arizona landscape and it is also clear that L’Amour has done his research on Apache life and lore. You also get more of a sense of how Hondo and the six-year-old Johnny bond and how Hondo becomes, in effect, his father.
The novel, set in the late 1870s, tells of the Apache chief Vittoro (Vittorio in the film). This is presumably Bidu-ya or Beduiat, usually known as Victorio (c 1825 – 1880), warrior chief of the Chihenne band of the Chiricahua Apaches.
Victorio, Apache chief
In his twenties he rode with Geronimo and in the 1870s became leader of the Chiricahuas and Mescaleros fighting the United States Army in New Mexico and Arizona. In August 1879 he left the San Carlos Reservation and launched what became known as Victorio’s War. He won a significant fight at Las Animas Canyon on September 18, 1879. In April 1880 Victorio’s Apaches killed settlers in New Mexico in the so-called Alma Massacre and later he attacked Fort Tularosa. Finally, In October 1880, while in northern Mexico, Victorio and his band were surrounded and killed by soldiers of the Mexican army under Mauricio Corrdedor in the Tres Castillos Mountains, Chihuahua.
The Vittoro of the book is an almost sympathetic character. He and Hondo Lane build a mutual respect, and they share an affection for the young boy.
I enjoy Louis L’Amour stories. They can be slightly overwrought from a stylistic point of view, a little dated shall we say, but they have excellent pace, are authentic and have strong characters. No wonder they made so many good Western movies. If you haven’t discovered him yet, you could do a lot worse than begin with his first Western novel, Hondo.