And, as it turns out, Hombre is an excellent, unique Western, whose attributes are difficult to describe because there's really no other Western quite like it. The story's premise is familiar, revolving around a stagecoach journey and robbery attempt that, in its middle-third, superficially resembles John Ford's classic Stagecoach (1939). But Hombre's main appeal lay in how its characters and story situations play out in wholly unexpected but very logical, believable, and hard-hitting ways. DVD Savant perceptively suggests Hombre is a bit like the Burt Kennedy/Budd Boetticher Westerns of the late 1950s; besides other Elmore Leonard Western novels, in some respects its characters have the realistic edge of novelist Larry McMurtry's characters. I was reminded of his Streets of Laredo and its miniseries adaptation with James Garner particularly.
Further, the performances are uniformly excellent. That's not surprising for a film starring Newman, Frederic March, and Richard Boone, but even utility actress Barbara Rush, a generic beauty in constant demand but almost never memorable, is acting at their level of excellence. And as good as the leading performances are, two of the supporting players, Martin Balsam and Frank Silvera, deliver Oscar-worthy work, too.
I'm also glad that I waited until now to see Hombre via Twilight Time's new Blu-ray, licensed from Fox, for legendary cinematographer James Wong Hong's Panavision lensing is yet another asset. He likewise shoots certain scenes common in Westerns in unexpected ways. One shot, a throwaway, really, particularly dazzled me: Most of the cast are walking through sandy hills in the middle of the night. Everything is much darker than any other cinematographer would have lit such a scene at that time, and Howe carefully has shadows from what appears to be a single light source fall behind the actors as they approach the camera. It really looks as if they're walking with no other illumination but a full moon.
In Arizona Territory, John Russell (Newman) has lived among the Apache most of his life, capturing horses for a stagecoach line about to be discontinued. He learns from Mexican-American Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) that the white adoptive father he lived with briefly has died and left Russell an inheritance: a gold watch and a modestly profitable boarding house operated by middle-aged widow Jessie (Australian actress Diane Cilento, then Mrs. Sean Connery). She wants to continue running the boarding house but he announces his intentions to sell it to buy a herd of horses.
Meanwhile, Indian agent Professor Alexander Favor (Frederic March), accompanied by his much younger wife, Audra (Barbara Rush), charters a special stage from Mendez to a town many miles away. Russell joins the stagecoach with Mendez as driver, along with the now out-of-work Jessie and boarding house tenants Billy Lee (Peter Lazer) and Doris Blake (Margaret Blye), a young, bickering married couple. A U.S. Cavalry soldier is also on the passenger list, but at the way station a stranger, Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone), threatens and intimidates the man to surrender his seat. Eventually there's an attempt at a stagecoach robbery. Russell kills two of the outlaws (a surprise right there, as one of the men killed, based on the actor's name value, normally would have been the second-to-last to be gunned down).
Because a big part of Hombre's appeal lay in its many rational surprises, this reviewer is loathe to give many of them away. Without really revealing anything, I'll obliquely offer one example: The outlaws take one of the women as a hostage and, in a scene out of a million other Westerns, the leader of the outlaws calls a truce to negotiate. Approaching the abandoned mining office where the stagecoach passengers are holed up, he threatens to kill the woman unless Russell hands over the $12,000 in cash it turns out one of the other passengers had essentially stolen. Russell casually refuses, saying the woman means nothing to him, a fairly shocking statement for the hero of even a 1960s Western. The villain then essentially tells Russell that, either way, without the money, nobody's getting out of there alive. He turns to walk back to where the outlaws have positioned themselves, then something genuinely startling occurs, and something I've seen in no other Western, ever.
Most see Hombre as a revisionist Western primarily concerned with the then-hot topic of race relations, here thinly disguised with Favor, March's character, a government agent who has used his esteemed reputation to pocket federal funds intended for starving Apache. Audra expresses disdain for Indians because "they eat dog" and Favor pressures Mendez to have Russell ride at the back of the proverbial bus, i.e., shotgun with the Hispanic driver. After the robbery attempt and with the remaining outlaws threatening to kill them all, Favor and the others turn to Russell to save them.
But the racial aspects really turn out to be more of a side issue. The last third of the movie instead becomes more of a character conflict with Russell insisting that uncompromising brutality (e.g., shooting the outlaws in the back) is the only way they have any chance of surviving men determined to kill them no matter what they do -- even if that means sacrificing, for instance, the helpless kidnapped woman.
Naturally, the more humanist passengers (their reactions vary widely and interestingly) are appalled at Russell's apparent callousness; some assume it's an attitude rising from his earlier mistreatment. But Russell, really, is nothing more than a steely-eyed realist. The core issues presented in the story aren't much about race at all.
Likewise, Balsam's more pragmatic, more obligingly compliant Mexican-American wants to avoid trouble. So what if it's cold up top, riding shotgun, he says, why make a fuss over nothing? That and other scenes concerning Balsam's character (who is superb, incidentally, right down to his authentic Spanish accent) can just as easily be read as blacklisted director Ritt's commentary on those who implicitly collaborated with the ‘50s witch-hunters through their cooperation. Impressively, the screenplay and Balsam's performance make his actions almost seem entirely reasonable given the circumstances. Nothing is black and white.
Newman often relied on actorly tics in many of his performances but he's stretching here. The film gives him a minimum of dialogue: Russell is always blunt when not circumspect. It's mostly a reactive performance, with Russell constantly sizing up the present situation and taking action, feeling no compulsion to explain or justify his behavior.
Even minor characters are richly realized. Chameleon African-American actor Frank Silvera, as he sometimes did, plays a Mexican outlaw. It's a small part, but he's so charismatic he actually steals some of the focus away from the always-interesting Richard Boone, who's very memorable himself. (Reader Sergei Hasenecz adds, "Silvera also appears in Valdez Is Coming, another good movie based on an Elmore Leonard novel.") Cameron Mitchell isn't in the film very long, just three scenes, but likewise uses his character, a sheriff bedding down with Jessie early in the story, in interesting and unexpected ways.
Video & Audio
Hombre was one of the first Fox films produced in Panavision after that studio basically junked its CinemaScope moniker, probably a good thing in this case, as it's hard to imagine James Wong Howe's cinematography looking this good with those old Bausch & Lomb lenses. The transfer looks great overall, with good detail, excellent color and contrast. The DTS-HD Master Audio is also strong in its 2.0 mono mix. A separate music-only track with the same specs is also included. This is a special release, limited to just 3,000 units. You've been warned.
Supplements include an awkward, standard-def trailer that doesn't know how to sell the film (not that it mattered; it was a hit anyway), a good audio commentary track featuring Paul Scrabo and Lee Pfeiffer, and a booklet essay by Julie Kirgo.
An excellent, unique Western, Hombre is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.