The strangers-thrown-together scenario: not quite a genre on its own but it is a formula Hollywood should turn to more often as its usually done to very good effect. Who could argue that the dynamism of Ford’s Stagecoach came almost exclusively from the mix of oddballs thrown together by circumstance or of the fun to be had trying to identify the single Nazi spy aboard Hitchcock’s Lifeboat?
Hombre is structured along much the same lines. A group of seven citizens – plus their driver – board a coach out of their isolated western town. The last coach ever as it turns out since progress, in the form of the railway, is almost at their doorstep. We are introduced to the seven in stages, some significantly before the ride starts, others just as the stage is about to leave and it gradually becomes clear that what binds them together, though none of them really know it yet, is that they are on all the run from something.
At the booking office, perhaps an hour before the coach is ready to leave it looks like the cast is in place. There in the corner is our protagonist. He’s played by Paul Newman, a white man who’s has been raised by Apaches. Sometimes known as Ish-kay-nay, other times as John Russell but also, for the purposes of this film, known as Hombre. He has come to town reluctantly to receive an inheritance and has shorn his Apache locks in an attempt to blend. But white mans’ clothes can neither change his character, nor curry favour with the town’s Anglos.
Also on her own is Jessie, played by Diane Cilento, who until recently ran the town’s hotel. On a double rebound from losing both her man and her business, she’s stoic but not unhappy to be leaving. Next a young couple, experiencing difficulties toward the end of their first married year and leaving town to start anew. After them another couple, throwing off aristocratic airs and possibly a little too anxious to depart. He a Government Indian agent, she a wife twenty years his junior. The final seat is taken by a nice-but-dim soldier, recently discharged and off to get married. But fear not fight fans, this chump doesn’t hold his ticket for long.
Hombre is based on a short story by the late and much lamented Elmore Leonard and it’s difficult to imagine what happens next as being scripted by anyone else. The group is assembled, bags packed in the ticket office before the stage leaves. As described earlier its a diverse group but something is missing. There is no grit in this particular oyster, no obvious future conflict for such a cramped environment. So into the ticket office walks a man. Clearly not just any man. A BAD MAN. Cicero Grimes, he announces to the clerk, in the same tone that Charles Manson might have announced himself at Sharon Tate’s front door. Told there are no more tickets left he sidles up to Newman and tries to cajole him into giving up his seat. Newman remains silent but the good-natured soldier foolishly intercedes, upbraiding Grimes for his rudeness. Terrifyingly Grimes then turns his attention toward the soldier and this time there is not even a hint of sweetness. In a series of escalating threats he bullies the soldier, in front of a roomful of shocked and awed passengers, into giving up the last ticket, thus gifting Grimes the final seat on the coach.
Of course Grimes had a reason all along for being on the coach, and moreover for neutralising the boy in blue, and yes the holier-than-thou financiers of the ride turn out to have a secret that becomes the motivation for the good, the bad and everyone in between but I’ll stop there for fear of spoilers.
The late 1960s in Hollywood was a time when the Western began to move away from portraying Native Americans as more than just two dimensional wildlings. Delmer Daves had perhaps pioneered this approach years earlier with Broken Arrow while Sam Fuller had inverted the audience’s sympathies in Run of the Arrow. Hombre very much follows that tradition but in 1967 the big studios were still not quite brave enough to place a Native American actor in the lead role, hence the nifty side step of Newman as a white raised as Apache. He of course is tremendous. Taciturn & brooding yet not at all sympathetic. In fact all too often content to go his own way even when death is on the line. He’s such a competent man however that the others slowly overcome their prejudice to see that following him is their surest route to salvation.
The rest of the cast is pretty damn good too. Richard Boone, who has not aged well from his time helming Have Gun Will Travel and as another fabulous Elmore Leonard bad guy in The Tall T, is perfect as the reptilian Cicero Grimes; Martin Balsam crosses racial lines as the good natured though timid Mexican stage coach owner but it’s Diane Cilento that stands out. She plays Newman’s foil (in fact it’s his character that has taken control of her boarding house) and she is gifted most of the interesting lines in the film, eventually becoming the moral compass of the piece.
Leonard was a safe pair of hands when it came to Westerns and this adaptation pays perfect tribute to his knack of creating immediately interesting characters and dropping them into seemingly impossible situations, the final twenty minutes being as good a ticking clock set piece as was ever condensed into the final act of a film.
Hombre – directed by Martin Ritt (1967)
A stagecoach heads out into the wilderness carrying an assortment of citizens. Amongst them is John Russell, a white man raised as Apache who may be their only chance of survival.