04 January 2012

HOMBRE/1967/PAUL NEWMAN

HOMBRE

1967/Director: Martin Ritt/Writers: Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr. (From the novel by Elmore Leonard)

Cast: Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone, Martin Balsam, Diane Cilento, Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Rush, Peter Lazer

I couldn’t believe my luck when the other day,while traveling here in China to another city, I found a used copy of Elmore Leonard’s western novel Hombre in a small, second book store. Of course the old paperback book was criminally over priced at about five American dollars but you can either buy it or do without here.I had just rewatched the film with my wife about a week before and the film made her a Paul Newman fan. “He’s so cool!” she exclaimed and struggled to watch the film though it lacked Chinese subtitles for her (we did find find English subs and she always has my onrunning commentaries.) I read the book in two settings and it gave me some fresh insights into a film I have seen well over a half a dozen times and will no doubt see again, maybe even in the next couple weeks. Hombre falls into a category of films I simply never tire of. It is directed by Martin Ritt (who had worked with Newman before and mostly notably on the film Hud) and was photographed by the simply great cinematographer James Wong Howe (who also shot Hud). And again like Hud, and several of Ritts' films, the screenplay was written by the team of Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank, Jr. Like many of Ritt’s films Hombre carries some social message that is thinly veiled at best.I tend to be the type of film viewer who does not over analyze most movies I watch but in the case of a film like Hombre you simply cannot avoid getting pulled into the messages the film is sending. It is a western but much more –like many westerns of the 60’s and early 70’s- with its harsh commentaries on racism, greed, class and moral/ethical dilemmas.

The film tells the story of John Russell (Newman of course) who is also known as Ish-kay-nay and Tres Hombres which are left unexplained in the film but not the book. Some reviews online refers to Russell as a ‘half-breed’ Apache Indian but no where in the film or book does it infer he is anything other than a white man who was taken as a boy and raised by Apache Indians as one of their own. The book describes Russell as having blue eyes and you cannot get eyes much bluer than Paul Newman’s. While rounding up wild mustang to used as stage coach horses Russell is informed by young Billy Lee Blake (Peter Lazar) that the stage coach line manager and old friend Henry Mendez needs to talk to his at the Delgado relay station. There he learns that the man who raised him (not his real father), John Russell. As died and left him an inheritance of a watch and a boarding house. Mendez sees this as a chance for Russell to blend in with the white man and speak English and live in a white man’s house. But at the same meeting we see how Russell handles conflicts with white men when he smashes the butt of his Spencer rifle into the face of a cowboy who was harassing one of his Apache comrades for drinking mescal at the bar.

He soon shows he has no interest in owning a boarding house and tells the woman who has managed it for years he owes her nothing and is going to sell the house for a herd of horses he had gotten a offer on. The house is managed by Jessie (Diane Cilento) is hard biting and wise and not one to argue with the simple way things are. We see this in her character as well when she accepts the cold reality that her long time man friend sheriff Frank Braden (Cameron Mitchell) is going do ‘do her a favor’ and not make an honest woman of her at this crucial time in her life. She doesn’t moan or beg and instead leaves the sheriff’s office to adjust to her dire situation.

Her situation soon becomes one where she will be taking a stage coach (actually a lighter coach called a ‘mud wagon’ that is used during rainy and therefore muddy trips) to another town. The trip is put together hastily as the stage line as technically closed, but Mendez is made the offer of a month’s wages in three by Dr. Favor (Fredric March), who is the current agent of the Apache resettlement camp, and his aristocratic (i.e. snobby and bitchy) wife Audra (Barbara Rush). Also on the trip are Billy and his wife Doris (Maragret Blye).The young Blakes also take with them their troubled relationship. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film we are introduced to the outlaw Cicero Grimes (played to perfection by Richard Boone) who swaggers into the waiting area and takes the ticket away from a ‘good guy’ soldier who is fresh out of the army and off to get married. Russell, originally Grimes’ target, is unconcerned by Grimes’ threat and equally unconcerned that the soldier stood up for him and became the new object of Grime’s hostility and bullying. In fact this would be a good point to deter from my synopsis and state how in fact Russell, though the ‘good guy” is hardly a good or likable man, in the way many cowboy anti-heroes of the time were portrayed. His thinking is survivalist and essentially selfish and yet it is direct and he never pretends to think or feel any other way than he does. His John Russell is much like many of the new breed of cowboy outsiders to emerge in the 60’s (Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name for example) who did not go out of their way or risk their own necks for strangers or for no reason that did not concern them directly. And while Newman’s Russell is as laconic as Eastwood’s drifter Newman is able to convey much more emotional range with little or no dialog than Eastwood could.


The ride in the mud wagon is typical of most in westerns and they are all reminiscent of John Ford’s Stage Coach with John Wayne. A group of people with little or nothing in common –other than leaving one place where life did not work out and trying desperately to get to another for another chance- are thrown together and as they tire from the trip their true thoughts and feelings begin to emerge. This is most pronounced when Audra Favor comes to realize that Russell was raised and lived among the Apache’s and wants him removed from the coach and to ride on top with Mendez. Russell is obviously insulted by this but takes Mendez’s advice to basically not rock the boat. Why make trouble? He asks. It is interesting here that Russell is seen as something vile simply for living among the Apache since he is in fact a white person like everyone else on the stage except Mendez who is a Mexican. All the film we see Russell’s disdain for white people and their world and yet the bitterness comes from a white man himself. You get the sense he wants nothing more than to settle the deal with the house and horses and get back to the Apache life he was leading before he got so ‘lucky’. He has turned his back on the white world.

Through out the trip we see a conflict as well between Jessie and Russell. She just cannot accept his lack of connection such as back at the coach station when he refused to help the young soldier who tried to help him. She is harsh and judgmental but is more like Russell in some ways than she may be comfortable with. She is the same sort of rugged individualist he is and she speaks right up even to Grimes and his crude behavior. Grimes’ behavior goes from crude to dangerous when his gang finally catches up with the stage coach on the new route it had taken at Dr. Favor’s behest. The good doctor –played well by March- seems has been cooking the books at the Indian camp and pocketing money for beef that was for the Indians food supply. Some of the outlaws (this is explained better in the book) worked delivering the steers and knew what Favor was up to. Among the gang are Jessie’s old beau Frank –now going bad he says- and the cowboys Russell had a run in with earlier at Delgao’s. They do not recognize Russell now with his short hair and new clothes but the cowboy with the busted face knows something is not right. Much of the movie is talking –though in no boring dialog or situations- but when the violence erupts it does so quickly. As the outlaws leave Russell is able to kill a couple with his Spencer and the tables turn when the group suddenly has the money back as well as almost all the water. Of course Grimes, who left with Audra as a hostage, will have to hunt them down to get both the money he wants and the water he needs to survive.

The group looks to Russell to lead them out of the desert and of course make the decisions, and they by burden the responsibility, of what they are to do about Grimes and the other two outlaws that are following them. The other people in the group have never killed anybody before and they are often at odds with Russell and his decisions and his forthright reasoning which basically says if you don’t kill them they will certainly kill you. The group often want to squabble over ethics and morals and who has the right to decide to decide who lives or dies. Why can’t we reason with them? And I think this is more the theme of the film than is the racism issue where the one main “Apache” character is a white man. The idea of Russell being an outsider or something that thinks and feels differently from the group in any way is the real issue here and the fact he was raised by Apache savages and is now in a stage coach sitting next white folk who cover their mouths when they burp is the tool used to make him that outsider. It is apparent that Grimes is the more callous and crude of the two men by far and the group has conflicts with him but never asks or demands he leave, perhaps out of fear. But probably the fact that he is at least a white man raised by white people makes Grimes still more acceptable than a white man like Russell who seems to side with the Apache’s predicament against the opinions of his ‘own people”. 

I don’t feel we ever get the feeling that Russell himself sees himself as anything less than a white man in the color of his skin sense but he is by all means outside the white man’s society and its conclusions about what is good or bad for the Indians. He sees that they have been robbed of their decisions and are forced to live where they don’t want to live and live lives that are not natural to them. The film seems to stop there and does not explore the violence and evil of both the white man and Apache as did a film like, let’s says, Robert Aldrich’s 1972 film Ulzana’s Raid, were the brutal acts of renegade Apache’s even push Indian sympathizers into states of hatred and revenge seeking. Hombre’s message is kept amongst white people (and the Mexican driver Mendez who makes it clear to Russell that a Mexican is still closer to a white man than an Apache ever will be.)

Some of the exchanges between Mendez and Russell as the small band try to reach the mining camp, where the hold up happened and find shelter and water, show Russell in a less than negative light. He seems willing to turn away even Mendez, who we infer even helped to raise Russell as a sort of uncle or guardian, and take care of only himself. Mendez in frustration shouts that this is happening to everyone, not just you. Russell is unmoved but tells the group they do as they like. Follow him or go off on their own. He and the arrogant elitist and racist Dr. Favor have a series of clashes that has Russell sending him off into the desert alone and unarmed and without water. Favor is obviously a threat to Russell and even the group and Russell dispatches with him. But the old doctor is tougher than we imagine and later shows up at the mining camp covered in dust but alive. This again causes an ethical dilemma and clash between the group and Russell when they want to lead him to the water they left behind earlier in the film. Russell does not see the point and he butts head with the stubborn Jessie who takes the position none of then can decide who lives or dies. This becomes a real issue when Audra Favor is tied down in the scorching sun by one of Grimes’ men, a Mexican bandit who Russell had earlier put a bullet in. The group now has to argue back and forth with Grimes and his men about whether it makes sense to trade the women for the money and their water. Russell says it makes no sense since the outlaws will kill them anyway while the group seems to toying around with abstract ideas about right and wrong that Russell has no need for. In the and Russell winds up being the only one in the group willing the make the actual sacrifice to set Audra free, the very woman who insulted him earlier in the film. Russell is never integrated in the white society Mendez wants him to be a part of and ultimately dies because of it rather than for it.

The movie looks epic and mythic,  and you just don’t see those grand and sweeping panoramic shots in films anymore. The acting is great naturally and in particular the scenes with Newman character having exchanges with those of Cilento, March and Balsam. There is great dialog supplied by Ritt’s screenwriting associates Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr. Hombre would be Newman’s last film with Martin Ritt after a string of six and 1967 would see him turn in what many to consider to be his quintessential outsider role in Cool Hand Luke. The high praise the film receives seems to put it outside the type of films I usually pander here but as far as I am concerned it fits in just fine since most people I have known have never heard of the film much less seen it. It is a film from another era and a movie like this simply could not be made anymore for various reasons not the least being you don’t have actors like Paul Newman anymore who seem to represent something other than the roles they play. Many of Newman’s characters show him as the outsider who is not happy with being what he is while in our day an age everyone wants to be an outsider so bad they can’t breathe. Movie outsider roles now are angry men or women with oily hair, covered in tattoos and have to say "fuck" every other sentence to make their points. Paul Newman’s Hombre can do it just by sitting by himself and staring out a window into the desert.

8 comments:

Danièle said...

I love Westerns, and I think I saw this one when I was very young. Your article makes me want to watch it again, so I think I'll seek it out.

Dr Blood said...

I have never seen this film or even heard of it before. The only Paul Newman western apart from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" which I remember from my childhood was "The Left-handed Gun" which I thought was excellent.

BTW, I'm blogging again. Not as prolifically this time but occasionally at http://iwatchdeadpeople.blogspot.com - I'm no longer doing horror. Just keeping you updated with my new project. It probably won't be the only one though. ;)

Bill D. Courtney said...

Hey Daniele

I have some more westerns coming up, old John Wayne stuff. Westerns are a uniquely American genre I suppose (the way Samurai films are uniquely Japanese) but they seem to capture the imagination of other cultures, for example Europe where there are the Italian westerns, in a special way. More coming up soon. Thanks as always :)

Chuck Wells said...

Hombre is terrific film, and I enjoyed reading your assessment.

Bill D. Courtney said...

Chuck

Thanks. Sometimes try to write about the movies i REALLY love, like Hombre, and not just 60's space monster stuff. Reviews on films like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Laughing Policeman are in the works too.

Bill

Danièle said...

Bill,
I love westerns, so yaya you. If you have the opportunity watch the Irish movie The Guard, which is a spoof western with Brendan Gleeson made in 2010. It plays with every cliché and prejudice, in a way only the Irish can do. I thought you might like it seeing that you are posted at the antipodes of Europe's Far West. :-) Once I have seen Hombre I'll report back here too.

Bill D. Courtney said...

Daniele

I have never heard of that movie and will try to find it. I love a good spoof. yea, if you see it let me know what you think. The hero of a good cowboy flick is often an outsider of sorts, and in this film Paul Newman (who played some of Hollywood's classic outsiders anyway) really hit the bull's eye. See ya...

Bill

Chris said...

Hi I like your blog and also like Elmore Leonard and Hombre I have also reviewed it on my website: see http://www.nativeamerican.co.uk/hombre.html Its on UK TV on Tuesday. Also reviewed is the book Valdez is Coming

http://www.nativeamerican.co.uk/leonard.html

all best