Paul Newman is quickly becoming a staple on the sixties part of the List. 1967 features two films of his as far as I can see, and Hombre is the first one of these. I never heard of this movie before, so I was very curious to see it.
In this movie Paul Newman is John Russell, a white man in the old west who has been growing up with the Apache Indians and feels more related to them than the settlers encroaching on their lands. He receives a notification that his father has died, leaving him a boarding house and a gold watch. With a haircut and a new set of cloth John returns to the land of the whites to claim his inheritance.
John immediately decides to sell the boarding house which means the eviction of the long-time warden Jessie (Diane Cilento) and the boarders including a young couple. John sets out to leave town on the stagecoach together with Jessie, the young couple, Dr. Alex Favor (Fredric March) and his wife, Audra Favor (Barbara Rush) and Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone), an unpleasant man who insists on joining the ride.
What happens next is a road trip where facades crack and real characters emerge for better or worse and in that respect this movie has a lot in common with the classic “The Stagecoach” from 1939. Instead of John Wayne’s Ringo Kid we have the Apache-minded John Russell and instead of an Apache attach the stagecoach is held up by white and Mexican bandits, but the pattern is much the same. Some of the people on the coach ride a high moral horse and falls deep. Some that look decent turn out to be the worst crooks and stereotypes are there to be broken.
In all this John Russell is a Christ figure who is sacrificed for the sins of others. He is doubted and ridiculed, but he is also above the others and the angel of justice. It is not difficult to see this movie as both being deeply entrenched in the western tradition with its tropes and stereotypes and turning it upside down with Christ character and a condemnation of the very western myths it is feeding on. Here the Indians are not the wild scourge of the West, but the victims of avarice and broken promises. Life in the Western hamlet is not one of opportunity but a dead-end that everybody wants to leave behind. Even the common notion of decency is perverted and abused. Leaving Audra to roast in the sun is inhuman, but the same people who complains would happily let the Apache die of starvation.
It is this juxtaposition of the classic and the modern western that makes an otherwise simple and straight forward western interesting to watch. It is an easy watch and pleasant enough at that, but these deeper motives elevate it above the standard fare. In that way it reminded me of “Hud”, another movie by director Martin Ritt.
Paul Newman himself I thought was less convincing as a white Apache. He tried, but at times it just looked weird. Something about his gait that made it look artificial. Still, it did not ruin the movie even if this was not the performance of his career.
“Hombre” definitely deserves a recommendation from me. Especially if you would like a different take on the classic western.