Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hombre (1967) - Directed by Martin Ritt

In this revisionist western, we have several key elements coming together. One, is that the film is based on an Elmore Leonard story, and as far as film adaptations of western short stories, you don’t get much better, as 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T were based on short stories by Leonard as well. There’s also the terrific pairing of director Martin Ritt, with his star Paul Newman, who worked together 5 times in their career, making a few great films together, like The Long Hot Summer and Hud. And by 1967 we also had significant cultural upheaval in terms of civil rights and a shift in mindset on many things regarding equality and justice.....including our historical understanding of the conflict between Native Americans and White Settlers. If Hombre today comes across as a rather angry provocation of sorts, it’s no surprise because of the cultural upheaval in the 1960’s that was spilling over into the world of cinema.

Hombre stars Paul Newman as John Russell, a white man who was raised by Apaches since he was a little boy. There is no explanation how this happened, but we can use our imagination. We meet him as a grown man, living on a reservation and part of the Apache police force. In a bit of odd news, it turns out he has inherited a house from his dead father in a nearby town. He goes there and decides to sell it off, and this puts the single woman, named Jessie (Diane Cilento) who was tending to the estate. In his efforts to leave town via stagecoach, John ends up together with an odd bunch on the stage: the unemployed Jessie; a husband and wife named Dr. Alex and Audra Favor who are involved in reservation agency work; a young married couple, the Blakes, looking to get a new start; a mean spirited man named Cicero (a predatory Richard Boone) traveling alone with an agenda; and the driver, Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) who is Mexican. During the conversations on the stagecoach, it becomes apparent to the passengers, that John Russell lived with Apaches, which riles up some racism, whereupon they request that he sits up with the driver. He complies to keep things from getting ugly. In the middle of the trip, the stagecoach is held up by a gang of which Cicero is also part of. It turns out that the money they’re after was embezzled from the funds for the Apache reservation by Dr. Favor. Cicero takes Audra Favor with him, but Russell shoots a few of the gang members as they are making off with the loot. Russell grabs the money and heads for the hills. The others, (save Audra who is stuck with the rest of the gang) in an ironic turn follow Russell up into the hills, following him as savior whom they previously shunned.

There is a keen sense of injustice on display from different angles in this film. Certainly the character of John Russell is a fascinating individual, identifying more with Native American culture even though he doesn't quite fit into either culture completely, Native American nor white. His hatred from such abuses as he has seen makes him extremely defensive and on edge, unafraid to speak his mind to the other passengers regarding social and racial injustices perpetrated upon the Native American people. His segregation onto the top of the stagecoach emphasizes the reference points here between Native American/White relations and Black/White relations coming into major focus in the 1950s-60s. Despite his position of social inferiority in the eyes of some whites, Russell is not completely positioned as angelic martyr. He’s a bit mean, and ornery, and has few considerations for people outside of himself and his nation. This gives the film a dark balance to it that keeps it from becoming too preachy and self-serving, allowing the audience time to question how we feel about John Russell. Ritt’s film is clearly grounded in a socially progressive consciousness that also incorporates a significant female perspective. Of particular note is the Jessie character, played wonderfully by Diane Cilento, who is her own provider and isn’t afraid to confront men when they’re being verbally rude and also calling them out when they’re acting weak.

In its own way, this film is a more progressive version of Ford’s Stagecoach. It looks at a cross section of life (albeit a more diverse one than in Stagecoach) and considers the different types of relationships and cultural divides that present themselves under those considerations.  Newman is his usual stone-cold self, mostly employing understatement and curt, mono-tonality in his fine performance. What elevates the film are the other parts: Cilento’s portrayal of the tough Jessie, Barbara Rush as the prim and proper Mrs. Favor, and of particular note, Richard Boone as the macho, misogynist Cicero. His role is what drives the conflict and he’s perfectly nasty here. Ritt’s assured pacing and James Wong Howe’s fantastic scoping and framing are also of particular note. Howe is able to consistently capture just about every single face in the frame at the same time. As a product of its time, Hombre still plays remarkably gritty and edgy today. There’s a surprising frankness here that is refreshing and goes a step further socially than films in the 1950’s did, like Broken Arrow. Despite the fact that the film centers on a white man, it is in fact Russell's whiteness that somehow highlights even more the incessant absurdity of racism. This is one of the great revisionist westerns of the era and is thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking.


Happy Miser said...

"This is one of the great revisionist westerns of the era and is thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking." I've always thought so, too!!!

Jon said...

Thanks Happy Miser. Glad you think so!

Sam Juliano said...

I've never thought of this as a great film, but certainly as you note a revisionist work of fair stature. For me the most accomplished element is James Wong Howe's superlative widescreen cinematography. Another piece of exceeding scholarship Jon!

Jon said...

Sam we can definitely agree on Wong Howe's spectacular cinematography. The guy was amazing with the camera. Thanks!