Martin Ritt’s “Hombre” is both a racial allegory and a parable about the tragedy of civilization. Like all revisionist Westerns, it dwells upon the reality of the frontier and how entire populations were sacrificed to the machine of “progress.” Minimalist in tone the film is unflinching in its portrayal of the West and the brutality that created it.
The film tells the story of John Russell (Paul Newman) an Apache-raised white man who boards a stagecoach with seven other passengers. Among the commuters are Jessie (Diane Cilento), a world-weary widow, Dr. Alexander Favor (Fredric March), an Indian agent, and Cicero Grimes (played by the wonderful Richard Boone.) As the stagecoach sets out on its journey, Russell deals with the prejudices of his co-travelers, who are not comfortable journeying with someone raised by Apaches. Things get worse when a gang of road agents, led by Grimes, holds up the stage. They attempt to steal money Favor embezzled from the Apache reservation, but the robbery is botched. Low on water and ammunition, Russell is forced to lead the survivors to safety before the road agents kill them.
Clearly an allegory for racial tension in America, “Hombre” does not shy away from obvious imagery. From white cowboys harassing Apaches at the bar, to Russell being asked not to sit with the whites in the stagecoach, the film is on the nose with what it is saying. Yet it avoids the traps that other allegorical movies fall into. Usually when narrative films attempt to be political, plot and character are ignored in order to fully proclaim the message. Yet “Hombre” manages not to sacrifice these elements. The story is nice and simple, and characters are fully developed. The overall message doesn’t detract from our enjoyment of the film.
That being said, “Hombre” would not hold up to contemporary scrutiny. Feminists would certainly raise an eyebrow at some of the scenes and dialogue in the picture. Also the fact that the story focuses on a white man raised by Apaches instead of an actual Apache would not pass muster with today’s SJW’s. Yet that’s always the risk when watching films that came out over 50 years ago.
Despite its flaws, “Hombre” is still an enjoyable movie. Taken at face value, the film is a great chase movie, with gripping action and tension. Paul Newman gives an excellent minimalist performance. Diane Cillento is wonderfully grounded as a worn out frontier woman, and Richard Boone is terrific in everything. The cinematography feels like it was lifted out of a Leone movie. Sparse in scenery and dialogue, there is a profound emptiness in “Hombre.” It’s a movie that will haunt you.