Film Review: Hombre,
Martin Ritt, 1967
Mendez (Martin Balsam): (we) just.....sit here and wait to kill them?
Russell (Paul Newman): If there was some other way, we'd do it....And try not to puke. You may have to lie in it for a long time.
Grimes(Richard Boone):(lighting a cigar) Smoke bother you?
Audra Favor(Barbara Rush): Would you put it out if I said it did?
Grimes: Oh, yeah. My momma taught me to remove my hat and my cigar in the presence of a lady. Whatever else I take off depends on how lucky I get.
Mendez: You can be white, Mexican, or Indian, but I think it pays you to be a white man for a while. Put yourself on the winning side for a change.
Russell: Is that what you are?
Mendez: Well, a Mexican's closer to it than a White Mountain Apache, I can tell you that!
Hombre, Martin Ritt, 1967
It is easy to identify stereotypes in Westerns since mostly they include them to satisfy the needs of the audience for familiar characters. This is precisely what contemporary newspaper reviewers did, for example Roger Egbert in the Chicago Sun-Times: "The good but indecisive Mexican, the decisive but bad Mexican, the thieving Indian agent, his cultured wife, the desperado, the lady boarding house operator with a heart of gold, and the Kid." The NYT's colourful Boseley Crowther likened the Film to Stagecoach, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Broken Arrow, not damning it with faint praise. U S contemporary reviewers seemed to like the film, for example Roger Egbert referred to it as "an absorbing, suspenseful film". But they were afraid to say so without first showing how smart they were in implying that some aspects of the film were a bit hackneyed.
For me this is not the case at all. The plot is excellent as dreamed up by Elmore Leonard, the dialogue tense and as believable as Leonard's own in his short novel, and the script by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank is very much in sympathy with the literate original. The direction might be categorised or even dismissed as "liberal" but it is heartfelt and genuine since Martin Ritt was blacklisted by television and was close friends with Walter Bernstein who was blacklisted by the film industry between 1950 and 1958. They went on to make The Front together in 1976 which was a darkly humorous exposť of the whole concept of blacklisting people starring Woody Allen. Ritt's values of anti racism and concern for social justice for individuals match those of Elmore Leonard and shine through in a thought provoking film. Like Hud and The Outrage which are also great films, Paul Newman starred. Ritt really rated him as an actor. Newman was also very sympathetic to these issues which do throw up a moral dilemma but the film should not be derided for that, far from it. There are also great performances from others: Diane Cilento, Richard Boone and Martin Balsam.
As shown in the above dialogue native Americans are presented in a very favourable light although instead of a native American in the starring role we have Paul Newman as John Russell, a white boy raised by the White Mountain Apache. While Russell is revealed as the most moral but unremitting of the travellers Armando Prats thinks this is less from his Indian upbringing than from "a primitive'......uncorrupted Christianity". (Prats, Invisible Natives, 2002). I would have been more persuaded by a link to the more traditional concept of the "noble savage" an example of which Russell shines like a beacon. Noble but nobody's fool. Hombre is an unsentimental study of morals. The whites are exposed as having superficial standards and principles which, despite their outward contention, are adapted to the circumstances. As representative of the Indian "Other" Russell is harsh and even in some ways, savage, but his standards are consistent in that they allow for pragmatism and are rational. White society is revealed as being hypocritical, while the "Other", while rough and ready, is at least honest. The society which extols the virtues of honesty and morality is second best to a society which has no truck with such notions but has its own internal consistency and rationale. They way in which this is drawn out by script and actors is fascinating and highly charged. This is a marvellous film, art at its best.
The flaw in Hombre, as Prats elaborates at great length, is that this fable is only acceptable to a White audience in that the lessons contained in its thought provoking content are delivered by a White man raised among the Apache and not an Apache himself. As Prats observes, the two Apache in the opening sequence do not speak, even when Mescal is thrown in one of their faces, and they are not even mentioned in the credits. (Prats, 217, note 40) In a sense Prats is clearly right, but such complaint, although justified, is, in practical terms, carping. For a native American to act in a starring role, never mind be the hero was highly unlikely to be a box office success. In the same year Lesley Selander happily presented native Americans as a war whooping savage in the dreadful Fort Utah. Furthermore in the context of the story, the notion that a native American might have ridden in or on top of the Stagecoach is preposterous and far from attracting admiration would have opened up the story to ridicule.
More commonly some critics have claimed that Hombre is a remake of Stagecoach. This is hardly the case, except superficially in as much as it is an Odyssey type Western in which a disparate group of travellers including a corrupt Indian Agent, find themselves in a stagecoach in peril. Very reluctantly they are forced to put themselves in the hands of the one person capable of saving them: the social outcast who has embraced a supposedly lesser culture. But the focus of the issues, and the climax are quite different and the values explored make Stagecoach look like a kids' tea party.
If you have a question or comment click here.
© Chris Smallbone February 2009