Ask most western fans what their favorite Paul Newman western is, and I’d say 9 times out of 10, you’d get “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” back. I’d say it. It’s a classic and deserves its status. Let’s not forget about 1967’s Hombre though, an underrated gem featuring one of Newman’s all-time best performances.
It’s the late 1800’s in the Arizona territory. John Russell (Newman) is a white man who was kidnapped at a young age by Apaches and raised as one of their own. Now a grown man, he associates more with the Apaches than white people. His adopted father though has passed away, leaving him a boarding house to decide what to do with. Russell sells it for a string of horses and takes a stagecoach to finish the deal. On-board, he finds his presence is less than welcome by his fellow passengers. The irony? One of the passengers intends to rob the others on the trail, and John’s skillset as a capable fighter and more than capable frontiersman will be more necessary than ever.
Point of conversation: This is a difficult movie to write a plot synopsis for. I don’t want to give too much away because in a somewhat messaged-based story, there are some good twists and turns along the way. It has some touches of Stagecoach, but in a more brutal, honest way. Hey, it was 1967 as opposed to 1939. Times had a’ changed!
From director Martin Ritt, ‘Hombre’ is one of the first — and best — revisionist westerns that began to look at the American west in a more honest fashion. They weren’t as white-washed as some 1950’s efforts and weren’t as flashy or exaggerated as spaghetti westerns. ‘Hombre’ takes the side of the Apache tribe who by the late 1800s was mostly in poorly-run reservations. We hear more about their plight, especially in quick, understated dialogue, and through one of several twists revealed about halfway through the movie. The bad guys then? Well, technically, everyone. Let’s cut to the chase though. The white folks don’t come off smelling like roses. It’s a fascinating story because it is so different from so many other genre entries.
Now for that Paul Newman fella. Playing John Russell, Newman steals this scene, seemingly without breaking a sweat. His dialogue is minimal, and when he does speak, he gets his message across in short, direct lines. His physical mannerisms are striking, his movements similarly minimalist. It’s just a fascinating character. Russell has chosen basically to live as an Apache warrior, leaving his white roots behind. He feels more at home with the Apaches and their way of life. In his fellow white passengers, he sees prejudice, racism, brutality, and maybe in most aggravating fashion, assumptions based on nothing but rumors. It’s only too perfect that these individuals come to depend on Russell for their very survival.
‘Hombre’ is interesting for a whole lot of reasons, but the biggest? Even with Newman’s Russell, there isn’t really a single sympathetic character in sight. You come to appreciate Russell’s personality and general intention, but sympathetic? Nope. As for the other passengers, look for Jessie (Diane Cilento), an out of work boarding house owner, Fredric March as Favor, the Indian agent, Barbara Rush as his wife, Richard Boone as the surly Cicero Grimes, Martin Balsam as Mendez, the stagecoach driver, and Peter Lazer and Margaret Blye as young married couple working through some issues. Cilento is especially good, the conscious of the movie and a conversational counter to Russell as their situation gets ever more dangerous.
Who else to look for? Keep an eye out for western regulars Frank Silvera, Cameron Mitchell, Val Avery and a pre-All My Children David Canary. Silvera is also a scene-stealer as an unnamed Mexican bandit. His scenes with Newman crackle.
Clocking in at 111 minutes, ‘Hombre’ isn’t fast-paced or action-packed. It is more of a slow burn full of tension, betrayal and some surprises along the way. Composer David Rose’s score isn’t big and booming, mostly relying instead on one memorable, quiet theme. Filmed on location in Arizona, it is a stunner of a flick. The desert and its barren qualities end up being a key additional character.
It all builds to one of the more startling endings I’ve seen in a western. Sticking with its realistic, downbeat tone, the finale features one of the more realistic shootouts I’ve ever seen in a western. Newman owns the last scenes, spewing one-liners with a bite. The movie is full of quick, snappy and biting dialogue, and what would you expect from a screenplay based off an Elmore Leonard novel? I guess I forgot to mention that earlier! Any-hoo, so much to recommend here. I liked this western more on my recent viewing than I ever have before. A must-see for western fans.
Hombre (1967): *** 1/2 /****