“Let me have my horse back so I can get out of here before dark.”
“What’s the matter? You afraid of it?”
“Hell, I don’t like what I see in the daylight around here.”
After his appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th film — Torn Curtain, which turned out to be a misfire for all concerned — Paul Newman returned to films started with an “H.” He’d already had considerable success with The Hustler, Hud and Harper, so why not one more? The choice this time was Hombre, a western in which Newman would play a white man who had been raised as an Indian. The role appealed to Newman because he felt it spoke to tolerance and the need for humans to work together for the common good. Under the direction of Martin Ritt, filming was carried out on location in Arizona in the Coronado National Forest, at the Helvetia Mine owned by the Anaconda Company, and in Old Tucson. The completed film was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1967 to generally favourable reaction. Fox has now released it on DVD.
John Russell is a white man who was raised by Apache Indians, and as an adult still finds himself most comfortable living amongst the Indian community. He learns that he has inherited a boarding house that he proceeds to sell, thus throwing the house’s manageress out of a job. Soon thereafter, he finds himself on a stagecoach with seven other people, including ex-Indian agent Alexander Favor and his wife Audra, the boarding house manageress Jessie Brown, and a rough-hewn stranger named Cicero Grimes. It soon transpires that Grimes’s presence is part of a plan to hold up the stage in order to get money that is being carried by Favor, who in turn had skimmed it off funds entrusted to him in his position as Indian agent. The hold-up does not go completely as expected, however. Grimes and some of his men ride away taking Audra as a hostage, but at the last minute, Russell manages to shoot one of the gang and that one has the money in his saddlebags. As the stagecoach survivors try to make their way to safety on foot, with Russell as their reluctant leader, Grimes is already planning to come back to regain the money.
Back before Elmore Leonard was writing the trendy sort of material that’s been the basis of a number of 1990s films (Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out Of Sight), western stories were a specialty of his. 1957’s The Tall T (with Randolph Scott) and 3:10 to Yuma (with Glenn Ford) were both superior westerns based on stories by Leonard. In the early 1970s, he was involved with both Valdez Is Coming (Burt Lancaster) and Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood). In between, a novel of his became the film Hombre and attracted the interest of another top star of the time — Paul Newman.
The fact is that the story is interesting enough, but not particularly original. If you’ve seen John Ford’s Stagecoach, you’ve seen a significant part of this film. The trip through the vast scenic areas of Arizona with the stop at a way station for food and a change of horses is reminiscent of Stagecoach‘s trip through Monument Valley; Alexander Favor with his sack of ill-gotten gains parallels the character of banker Gatewood and his bag of extorted funds; John Russell is forced to ride on the top of the stagecoach as was John Wayne’s Ringo Kid; manageress Jessie Brown has the same straightforward, take-me-as-I-am nature as Claire Trevor’s Dallas; even the sudden first entrance of Grimes with the saddle slung over his shoulder reminds one of the first sight of the Ringo Kid. The rest of the film, dealing with John Russell and his interaction with the stage passengers as they try to survive, owes much to those Hollywood westerns of the 1950s that attempted to make amends for years of film-making that portrayed Indians as little more than annoyances who could be shot if they were in the way at all. So we’re not exactly plowing new ground here. What makes it all work is a cast that is comfortable with western material and a crew that guides them through it with skill and obvious enthusiasm for the task at hand.
Of course, any film with Paul Newman in it has a built-in advantage. Newman could turn his hand to many types of roles and usually make them ring true. He had the rugged look that allowed him to appear realistic in westerns and had had previous successes in The Outrage, The Left-Handed Gun and the modern western Hud. As far as Hombre was concerned, Newman obviously believed in the value of the point being made by the film — the need for both Indian and non-Indian alike to cooperate with each other for their mutual benefit. For the most part, the film script is true to this. Only at the end does it ring false when Russell takes cooperation to an extreme in an action that is inconsistent with what the character has displayed to that point. Newman’s amount of dialogue in the film is minimal and much of the role is conveyed through mannerism and action, yet he seems to settle into the role with ease. This is probably due to his comfort level in working with director Martin Ritt. The two had a lengthy history, having worked together previously on The Long Hot Summer, Paris Blues, Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, Hud and The Outrage.
Hombre also benefits from a strong supporting cast that includes Martin Balsam, Richard Boone (of Have Gun Will Travel TV fame), Diane Cilento, Barbara Rush, David Canary, and Cameron Mitchell (although he’s basically wasted). Particularly good is veteran Fredric March playing Favor.
Of note, too, is the fact that well-known cameraman James Wong Howe was the cinematographer on the film. He had worked often with Martin Ritt, with Hud being a particularly successful example of their work together. He found his time on Hombre to be less rewarding, although the film has the naturalistic look he was known for. Take a look at the opening sequence that shows the trapping of the wild horses for a fine example of the collaboration between a competent director and expert cinematographer.
Once again, Fox has taken one of its widescreen, outdoors adventures and made it available on DVD in a nice clean and bright anamorphic transfer that preserves the original Panavision 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This is not the most vibrantly colourful-looking transfer I’ve seen, but that is more due to the nature of the original film, which has a lot of browns and other dusty imagery in it. Given that, the image is crisp and natural looking at all times. Speckles and scratches are minimal and edge enhancement is not an issue.
We get three Dolby Digital audio tracks — English stereo and mono, and French mono. The stereo track is the one to choose. It has noticeably greater presence and richness than the mono one, although there’s no great directionality evident. English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The disc’s supplementary features include a rather skimpy still gallery (about ten images) and the theatrical trailer. Trailers are also included for two other Fox films starring Paul Newman (The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Hombre is probably the lesser of all Paul Newman’s “H” films, but since the other three (Hud, Harper, The Hustler) are all excellent, that still leaves it with a pretty good ranking. The story has many familiar aspects, but provides plenty of entertainment nonetheless, due to the efforts of a very fine cast and crew. Fox provides a very fine DVD transfer, although it has the usual meager supplements characteristic of many Fox catalogue releases. Recommended.