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Synopsis: A white man raised by Apaches, John Russell (Paul Newman) is none too pleased about having to return to white society to claim his inheritance, a modest boarding house. Upon his arrival, he ruthlessly ousts the house’s occupants and its manager, Jessie (Diane Cilento), in favor of selling the property. Russell soon joins Jessie on a stagecoach out of town, accompanied by an unhappy young married couple (Peter Lazer and Margaret Blye) who had been boarding in the house; an agent of Indian affairs, Professor Alexander Favor (Fredric March); Favor’s snooty wife Audra (Barbara Rush); mysterious stranger Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone); and their driver, Russell’s Mexican acquaintance Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam). Tempers soon flare when Russell reveals himself to be of Native extraction, at which point the bigoted Mrs. Favor insists that he ride up top with the driver, as his presence inside the coach makes her uncomfortable. But the true nature of the “civilized” travelers is soon revealed when it is discovered that Professor Favor has with him a satchel of money he has stolen from the very Indians who gave Russell his upbringing. Surprising no one, Cicero Grimes turns out to be a bad guy who got on the stagecoach with the express intention of robbing Favor, which he does when his merry band of outlaws catches up with the coach. Russell is able to recover the money in a shootout and take possession of it, with the intention of returning it to the Natives to whom it rightfully belongs; but he makes no attempt to save Mrs. Favor, whom Grimes kidnaps as he gallops away. Now without a coach or an adequate supply of water, the formerly-hostile passengers turn to the silent and self-serving Russell to use his Native-bred survivalist instincts to protect them from both the harsh desert environment and Grimes’ men, and ultimately lead the group to safety.
JUST A WARNING: This is an old post which contains transphobic language. I apologize deeply for that. However I don’t want to delete it because I don’t want to escape accountability.
I have a pretty immature theory about Westerns. In my experience, the only people who like Westerns are those who possess male genitalia. Therefore, in order to enjoy Westerns, you must have a penis. Again, this is only a theory, and only comes from my own personal experiences with both Westerns and penises; I have not performed any scientific research on the direct correlation between the enjoyment of Westerns and the possession of a penis, as I am still waiting on my grant. But it explains why I do not like Westerns and why none of my penis-lacking friends like them either. I’m sure there are plenty of people with penises who hate Westerns and people without penises who love them; all I’m saying is, I’ve never met any.
Hi there, I’m Paul Newman and I’m here to kick your ass.
But let’s stop talking about penises for just a second and talk more seriously about what I found so uninteresting and distasteful about this film. Because, in all seriousness, despite the fact that it’s a Western, this movie had a lot going for it, and I really expected it to be more successful than it ultimately was. First of all, I’ve seen Hombre referred to in multiple places by multiple reviewers as “the greatest Western of all time.” Supposing this is the best of the genre, in theory, it should’ve won me over, or else I’m just a complete lost cause for the Western kind. It didn’t, so maybe I am; I wouldn’t be surprised (remember the lack of penis). Secondly, and most importantly, this film had a pretty incredible team of filmmakers behind it, which also should have been able to win me over. It was the sixth and final collaboration between Paul Newman and director Martin Ritt, and the third collaboration between Newman, Ritt, and Academy Award-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe. The team of Newman, Ritt, and Howe immediately makes me think of Hud (1963), one of my favorite movies and probably one of the greatest films of all time (at least, I have trouble imagining how a film could possibly get much better). My love for Paul Newman and my love for Hud were enough to get me to watch this movie, but sadly, they were not enough to make me enjoy it.
Besides being made by the same people, there are further similarities between Hud and Hombre. Although the former has a contemporary setting and the latter is set in the Old West, the characters of Hud Bannon and John Russell are both self-serving jerks who don’t care about anyone and don’t want anyone to care about them. Hud is definitely the more volatile of the two, and more actively horrible, whereas Russell is quiet, stoic, and accustomed to solitude. Plus at least Russell is a jerk on behalf of an oppressed people, whereas Hud is just a jerk on behalf of Hud. While Hud is completely reprehensible and without redeeming qualities, he’s still an irresistibly likable antihero, which is an indication of the complexity and dimensionality of his character. Russell is likable too, but for more traditional reasons: he’s the archetypal outlaw hero, stealing (back) from the rich to give (back) to the poor. The similarities between the two lead characters end here, as Russell does not possess any of the charming verbosity that makes Hud so captivating – though he does get a good one-liner in here and there.
Convenient of them to seat all the jerks of the movie in a neat little row like that.
Hombre is a revisionist Western, so you expect it to be nontraditional and complex, but I still felt the characters were somewhat one-dimensional. Yes, I get the irony that the supposed “civilized” characters turn out to be the real ruthless savages, but once that is revealed, there isn’t much ambiguity about those characters anymore. Professor Favor shows no remorse about stealing from the Apaches – in fact never even indicates that he even knows what he did was wrong – and worse yet shows zero concern for his kidnapped wife, even when she is tied to a stake and left frying in the scorching desert sun, pleading for her husband to come rescue her. In fact one comes to detest Favor even more than the actual villain, Cicero Grimes – because at least Grimes is honest about his evil intentions and shows a little emotion about it. As for Mrs. Favor, I kept forgetting why we were supposed to care about her in the first place, and why Russell didn’t just shoot her to put her out of her misery and end the whole standoff right there. But soon the irony of a man who is so concerned about a group of Indians starving to death in the mountains allowing an innocent (though bigoted) woman to die just because he doesn’t want to give up his money becomes pretty obvious, and Jessie helps Russell see the error of his ways and take action of behalf of Mrs. Favor.
The character of Jessie, in fact, turns out to be one of the most interesting yet under-utilized figures in the film. Her quick wit and sharp tongue reminded me again of Hud, more specifically of the recently-late Patricia Neal’s Oscar-winning performance as Alma, the seen-it-all, done-it-all housemaid. (Actually, Diane Cilento’s British-y accent reminded me more of Molly Grue from the animated film The Last Unicorn , but all three are similar types.) However, where Hombre fails the most in fulfilling the “revisionist” part of a revisionist Western is in its depiction of women, and this becomes most obvious in the portrayal of Jessie. At the climax of the film, Russell needs a sniper to stay back in the house and take out one of the outlaws through a window – so he asks the ineffectual, inexperienced, and all-around useless Billy Lee Blake, the male half of the unhappy young married couple from the boarding house, to do the job. Why he doesn’t ask the tough-as-nails and fully capable Jessie to take this duty I have no idea, unless he was specifically trying to sacrifice Blake. This is only the most glaring example of an overwhelmingly wasted character, and just one instance of how bleakly this film chooses to portray women. Whether it’s a capable businesswoman whose many strengths go untapped, a cold snobby bitch-goddess who instantly transforms into a helpless damsel in distress, or a ditzy blond (who couldn’t be from the Old West if you installed saloon doors in her – wow where was I going with that one) who basically asks to be raped, almost is, and then is told by another woman not to tell anyone about it, this movie loudly indicates that it is not interested in a dynamic, original, or accurate depiction of women. It may not be an offense egregious enough to rank it up there with the most women-hating movies ever made (with the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow Up currently holding top honors in that distinguished category), but as I often say about misogynistic films, it’s hard for me to be interested in a movie which so obviously isn’t interested in me.
Just what every movie needs – an awesome, strong female character who DOESN’T GET TO DO ANYTHING.
Hombre wasn’t the worst Western I’d ever seen, but it certainly didn’t do much to change my mind about the genre. Yes, it’s awfully nice of Paul Newman to do so much to highlight the plight of the Native Americans (although they transformed him from “savage Indian” into “handsome white dude” pretty much immediately, to assure you that, even if Newman is playing an Indian-raised white man, he’s still safe), but the supposed “real Indians” in this film, who go largely unseen, don’t do anything but be rescued and aided by the sympathetic white hero; in fact, when “real Indians” do briefly appear in the movie, they are not allowed to talk. Even Henry Mendez, the primary Mexican character of the film, doesn’t get to be played by a Mexican actor but by a Jewish guy from The Bronx. I know it’s nit-picky and somewhat unfair, but it’s hard for me to accept messages of racial tolerance and harmony from films that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. I know things weren’t that black and white for filmmakers and casting agents in the 1960s – I know I’m asking for a lot in expecting fair casting practices – but it’s also not my job to turn a blind eye to hypocrisy in Hollywood when I see it. It is my job (in a self-appointed, completely-unpaid sort of way) to determine whether a film is effective or not in getting across its core message to me as an audience member, and that’s why, while Hombre may be a step in the right direction to creating a true revisionist image of the Old West as us Americans have glorified it, it’s nowhere near the end of that road. Progress makes perfect, and while this may be progress, it sure as hell ain’t perfect.
Hombre (1967) – 2/5 stars