Sunday, January 27, 2013

Old Racism in Old Clothes

Film: Hombre
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s still a few Westerns on The List for me, and that’s something of a point of pride for me. I’m not a big fan of the genre in general, although I don’t specifically dislike it. Still, I’ve made it a point to get through a bunch of them, or to at least watch them regularly so that I’m not stuck with a couple dozen of them at the end. It’s been a couple of weeks since I spent time with a horse and saddle picture, so I figured I might as well hop back into that saddle, as it were, and cross off another one. In this case, the film in question is Hombre from the year of my birth.

Just as a lot of good science fiction is more or less a story that happens to take place in a futuristic setting and several good Westerns (like The Ox-Bow Incident) are tales that simply use the Western setting as a backdrop, Hombre is a morality tale about bigotry and racism that simply happens with a stagecoach and horses. John Russell (Newman) is a white man who was raised by Apaches, and the inherent racism of others for his upbringing drives the entire narrative.

As the film begins, Russell learns that his father has died and that he has an inheritance waiting for him in the form of a gold watch and a boarding house. He heads into civilization and gets his hair cut and then checks out the building, meeting Jessie (Diane Cilento), the woman who runs the place. He asks her about it, and then tells her he’s decided to sell the place to buy horses, which naturally upsets everyone who lives there and Jessie in particular.

And now, Jessie, John Russell, and several others determine that it’s time to get out of town. So those two, plus the feuding married couple Billy Lee (Peter Lazer) and Doris (Margaret Blye), unkempt thug Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone) and Dr. Alex Favor (Fredric March) and his wife Audra (Barbara Rush), who have evidently stolen a great deal of money from the Apaches, all hop onto a stagecoach to leave. It’s being driven by Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam in brownface) through some rough country.

It doesn’t take long for everyone to figure out that John Russell was raised by Apaches, and the inherent racism comes to the surface—everyone asks that he ride outside of the coach on top so that they aren’t tainted with his Indian wiles. Not long after this, the stage is stopped by a gang of outlaws, and it turns out that the uncouth Cicero Grimes is a part of the gang, as is Frank Braden (Cameron Mitchell), the sheriff of the town they just left and Jessie’s former lover. They know about the stack of money the Favors stole from the Apaches, and that’s what they want. They leave the stage without water and stranded, and take Audra Favor with them as a hostage.

And now the tables turn. Suddenly, since Russell is the one most familiar with the territory and has the gumption to fight back against the bandits, everyone turns to him to lead them out of the wilderness and save Audra Favor. Russell, though, has his own motives for what he does and his own goals. In fact, even as they beg him to save them, their racism against the Apache comes to the front.

This is really the entire film. Everyone is alternately begging and rude to Russell. For his part, Russell remains taciturn and keeps his own counsel, and as typically is the case in a film like this one, is the one who acts with the greatest sense of morality despite being the social outcast. And his law is harsh. When Alex Favor decides to take all the water and go off on his own, Russell stops him and sends him away without water as a punishment.

Really, this is a tale of racism right out of the heart of the 1960s that simply happens to be in Western clothing. It’s pretty ham-handed all the way through. Newman is great as the strong, silent type. I also really like the character of Jessie, who is a hooker with a heart of gold without being a hooker. She’s saucy and doesn’t brook a lot of foolishness, and that makes her fun to watch. Most of the rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, although seeing Martin Balsam as a Mexican is pretty damn funny.

Take this one or leave it. If you’re a Western fan, you’ll like it. If you aren’t in particular a big fan of horse pictures, you won’t find anything objectionable here, but you also won’t find much that makes you think your time was well spent.

Why to watch Hombre: Because Paul Newman was a bad-ass.
Why not to watch: You’ve probably seen this in a non-Western guise.


  1. Reviewing a western just cries out for the use of the word "gumption" at some point, doesn't it? :-)

    I thought this movie was just okay. I didn't like what they did with Newman's character at the end.


    I would have preferred it if he didn't do the "noble sacrifice" thing. I feel it would have made the film a lot better if his character stayed a little more moarally ambiguous like he had been shown for most of the film up to the point.


      I completely agree. I think it would have been a stronger statement to just let them stew in their racism and walk away from it clean.

      Eh, White Man's Burden and all that rot...

  2. I watched Hombre yesterday afternoon and I feel like I should have seen this a long time ago because of how much I like cynical Westerns of the 1960s and early 1970s. But I don't recall that I ever heard of it before seeing it on the List.

    I liked it a lot. I'm not sure why it's on the List. When it comes to cynical Westerns where all the choices are bad and the hero must be wise and patient if he's going to figure out the least bad option, you can't beat The Wild Bunch.

    I liked Frederic March a lot! I was so surprised to see him in a color movie that I just kept staring at him and I couldn't help but notice how good he was.

    1. I don't really even see this as purely a Western of one stripe or another, even though it is. It's a movie about racism that happens to include cowboys and horses. The cowboys and horses are certainly a part of what's there, but they aren't the focus of the film in any respect.

      There are better racism movies from the era as well, so I think I generally agree with questioning its necessity.