We all die, just a question of when.

I’m an unashamed fan of westerns from the 1950s, the genre’s golden years, but I’m also pretty fond of those from the following decade. By the end of the 60s, with the spaghetti western in the ascendancy, revisionism was in the air, though that movement wouldn’t come to full fruition until we pass into the 70s. For the classic Hollywood western these were the transitional years, a painful period in some ways, with the genre thrashing about in search of direction. Such times tend to bring about a combination of successes, throwbacks and misfires. When we view the era in this light, I think it’s fair to say that the 1960s was a decade that was simultaneously fascinating and frustrating for western fans. Ultimately, revisionism would strip the genre down to the bone and train a probing searchlight on its innermost workings. One could write an in-depth study on the effects of this process, and I have a hunch the conclusion would be that no genre, least of all one so firmly rooted in myth as the western, could emerge unscathed from such an intimate examination. But I’m not going to take on that task here; instead I’m going to look at one of those late 60s westerns that seemed to benefit from the turmoil of the time, Martin Ritt’s Hombre (1967). Here we have a movie that avoids the outright nihilism of the Euro western, retains the structure and moral complexity of the best 50s efforts, and looks forward to the bleak honesty of revisionism. In short, it becomes a kind of philosophical meditation on social responsibility.

The classic western hero has frequently been characterized as a loner, a man drifting along on the fringes of society for one reason or another. Such a ploy isn’t accidental of course; it allows us to connect with the spirit of freedom and individualism that’s a significant part of the western’s attraction, and also helps objectify the view of society and encroaching civilization. Generally though, the hero does feel himself drawn in some way towards the society he observes. Hombre presents us with John Russell (Paul Newman), a white man raised by the Apache who has categorically rejected the ways of his own race. He’s first seen in his preferred environment, rounding up wild horses, and has clearly been fully integrated into the Apache lifestyle. However, news of an inheritance – a beaten up boarding house – brings him back to white society, at least temporarily. Arriving in town, he’s adopted the outward appearance of his own people but retains the cool detachment of the Apache. Essentially, Russell has made it his business to mind his own business – to have as little contact with the white world he has rejected as possible. He sells up and books passage on the last stagecoach out. Yet, the interrelated nature of society doesn’t really work that way; all action, even calculated inaction, has its consequences. In a sense it’s Russell’s single-minded detachment that lays the groundwork for what follows.The sale of the boarding house, effectively acts as the catalyst that finally pushes at least one man towards crime, and Russell’s own determination to avoid intervention in the affairs of others ensures that a bullying outlaw, Grimes (Richard Boone), gets to ride the stage. The first hour of the film is a fairly sedate affair, concentrating on establishing the character of each passenger and offering some insight into their relationships. Collectively, they add up to a cross-section of frontier types: the outwardly respectable older man and his younger, disillusioned wife, a young couple coming to terms with the realities of married life, the veteran driver who’s long since bid farewell to his ideals, the woman who has been around and remains a survivor, the swaggering bully, and the enigma that is Russell. Locked within the confines of the bumpy stagecoach, the tensions, prejudices and fears of this disparate little group simmers away just below the surface. The pressure comes to a head when they are held up on a remote part of the trail, and the truth about each one emerges. Abandoned in the wilderness, and facing the very real prospect of perishing, they turn towards Russell to guide them out. But Russell is now in something of a quandary; apart from the fact he’d been shunned due to his Apache affiliations, he feels no obligation towards his fellow man anyway. He’s faced with a philosophical dilemma  – does he follow his head and leave these people to the fate he reckons they deserve, or does he listen to that still distant voice within that urges empathy.

If we count Hud, then Martin Ritt made three westerns with Paul Newman, and all of them have their points of interest. Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, Hombre is the closest to the traditional western. The basic structure owes much to John Ford’s classic Stagecoach, but it’s a much more cynical affair. The two films do share the vital element of spiritual redemption for their hero, but Ritt’s movie reaches that point in a more tragic and bitter way. The script raises interesting questions about how much we owe others, how far we should go for those we deem undeserving of our sympathy, and whether intervention or isolation is the correct approach. Bearing in mind the film was made while the war in Vietnam was still raging, I think that last issue must have been in the minds of the filmmakers. However, leaving that aside and looking at things from a purely personal perspective, the problems continue to be thorny. Russell not only knows that assisting the abandoned travelers will add to his own peril, but his years living outside of white society have meant that he no longer identifies with these people. Circumstances have resulted in his being caught in a kind of cultural no-mans-land, where his head and heart are in conflict. In cinematic terms, this is a reflection of the position the western itself was facing in 1967, with its soul and conscience pulling in one direction while social and economic factors were pressuring it to go another way. Visually, with the aid of James Wong Howe’s great cinematography and the Arizona landscape, it bears all the hallmarks of the classic western, but the existentialist undertones of its theme point to the future.


Mrs Favor: I can’t imagine eating a dog and not thinking anything of it.
John Russell: You even been hungry, lady? Not just ready for supper. Hungry enough so that your belly swells?
Mrs Favor: I wouldn’t care how hungry I got. I know I wouldn’t eat one of those camp dogs.
John Russell: You’d eat it. You’d fight for the bones, too.
Mrs Favor: Have you ever eaten a dog, Mr. Russell?
John Russell: Eaten one and lived like one.

Paul Newman was an adherent of the method style of acting. Now I’m no fan of the method and the frequently affected performances that it encouraged. I understand it is meant to help the actors dig deeper within themselves and find a truth in their role yet it often seemed to produce the polar opposite, a mannered performance that actually draws attention to itself. Some of Newman’s early roles are badly blighted by this in my opinion. However, by the time he came to Hombre he had moderated his acting style, and what we see on screen is far better, far more involving. As far as I can remember, and it’s been a few years since I read Leonard’s novel, Newman’s portrayal of John Russell is pretty close in spirit to how the character came across on the page. It’s a very quiet performance; I think the stillness of the man, the eternal patience of his Apache side is perfectly captured. There’s a great sense of his being aware of everything, absorbing the sounds, smells and moods around him and storing them away. When he’s aroused to action there’s a jarring abruptness to it that makes it all the more effective. The first instance takes place in a cantina where Russell sits and calmly watches and listens to his Apache companions being goaded by two ignorant redneck types. We’re expecting something, a reaction of some kind, maybe a rebuttal from this soft-spoken man. But the sudden swing of his rifle butt to shatter and drive the splinters of a whiskey glass into the face of the barroom lout is both shocking and satisfying. In a similar vein, the later eruption of aggression when he opens fire on Boone when he comes to parley is made more intense by the apparent calm that precedes it.

Richard Boone’s crafty and cunning Grimes is the ideal foil to Newman’s motionless and emotionless Russell. Boone gave countless performances that were straight out of the top drawer and Grimes has to rank up there among the finest. He had a real knack for conveying a quiet threat – there was always the feeling that here was a man it would be foolish to cross. His first scene in the station when he intimidates a soldier into turning the last ticket available over to him illustrates this quality well. There’s something in that craggy face and low-pitched voice that conveys his intent far more effectively than bluster and showboating; not an easy task but when it works, it works wonderfully. Of the three female roles in the movie, Diane Cilento had the most substantial and the one with the greatest significance. Generally, I feel she was an underrated performer who was always interesting to watch. She played the most down to earth of the three women on that stagecoach, and the one with the lowest social status. Russell’s decision to sell up saw her out of a job and on the streets but with her spirit unbroken. The script offered her several opportunities to shine and she took each one, displaying an earthy and attractive honesty. She was also fortunate to be playing the character whose mentality the average viewer could most readily identify with, providing a kind of bridge between Newman’s omnipotent aloofness and the self-interest of the others.

Fredric March had a nice little late career turn as the corrupt Indian agent, the one whose presence poses the greatest danger to the survival of the group. Basically, he represents all that’s wrong with the society that Russell has rejected – corruption, vanity, weakness and hypocrisy. Still, despite portraying a deeply unpleasant person, March manages to inject a good deal of pathos into his performance and leaves you feeling a little sorry for this man who has transitioned poorly from the successes of his youth; he did something similar in Inherit the Wind, where he tapped into the human frailty of another character who was essentially unsympathetic. Martin Balsam was a first-rate character actor who enriched many a great movie – 12 Angry Men & The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to mention just two – with his everyman persona. As the stagecoach driver who has come to terms with his own limitations and realizes that he can no longer fight the tide of progress, he’s another figure with whom the audience can connect.

As far as I can tell, Hombre has never been released on DVD in the UK, though it is readily available from both the US and continental Europe. I have the Dutch DVD from Fox, which presents the movie most satisfactorily. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the transfer is very pleasing with good colour and definition to show off James Wong Howe’s location photography. The disc offers a wide selection of subtitle options and the only extra feature is the theatrical trailer. For me, Hombre is a highly successful piece of work that hits the mark on a number of levels: as an entertaining western movie, an examination of race and social cohesion, and also contextually, for the position it occupies in the development of the genre. I consider the latter to be the most fascinating aspect, and yet another link between what may superficially appear to be irreconcilable eras. Nevertheless, whatever way one opts to view the film, it makes for a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.


52 thoughts on “Hombre

    • Thanks. I like Newman a lot in this movie. He gives a strong, controlled performance. I find his 50s work patchy with some good work but some very studied. By the 60s he had overcome most of the earlier excesses.


  1. Superb analysis, and dead-on-the-money.

    Newman captures the physicality of the Navajos on the reservation here. He observed them before filming. Note his postures, the position of his arms and hands, his stillness, his staring, his intense listening, the few words. They’re just like that. The physicality of his performance is uncanny and true to life. He works hard at the minimalism of it.

    HOMBRE is one of the great, great American westerns.


    • Thank you very much Richard. Newman’s stillness, his calm patience, is what really jumped out and grabbed my attention when I first saw the movie. It distinguishes him from the rest of the group and puts his performance on a completely different level.


    • Thanks Michael. I think genre fans do rate it highly, which is only right, but it’s one of those movies that isn’t often given a lot of attention when great films of the period are discussed.


  2. “I’ve got a question. How are you going to get down that hill?”
    HOMBRE is a great western! Newman’s ‘quiet’ performance is, as you say, very impressive. Not just in the sudden flashes of action he’s capable of but also in the way he speaks. I found Russell’s ability to deflate the occasional attempt at complex and wordy ultimatums particularly satisfying.
    I would add one observation to your comments about the battle going on within Russell between aloofness and empathy. At the end of the film, in the midst of the hypocrisy and prejudice shown by some, it is the fact that one of the group’s number (Diane Cilento) is willing to stay true to her own sense of human decency that makes Russell decide on his own course of action. I’ve often wondered what his decision would have been if she hadn’t done so. A film which makes you think like this about its characters when it’s over has worked well in my view.
    I have the U.S. DVD release of HOMBRE and this too is a good print.
    Between this one, THE TALL T and 3:10 TO YUMA, I think it’s fair to say that Elmore Leonard’s western stories have been adapted superbly well over the years.
    Great review


    • Dafydd, I think Newman’s sparse dialogue is excellent. Coming from the pen of Elmore Leonard, that’s not altogether surprising, but Newman’s delivery of the lines, as you point out, gives them even more power.

      I agree with you on the climax, and the way Russell seems inspired by the act of selflessness that Cilento’s character displays. It is interesting to ponder what the outcome might have been if circumstances had been altered, and that’s one of the hallmarks of great filmmaking. Almost all the best pieces of cinema have left us with food for thought after the credits roll.

      I’m a real fan of Leonard’s western writing, even though he’s arguably better known for his crime stories, and have read most of his stuff. Viewing Hombre again and writing this piece has persuaded me to start in on one of the few of his western titles I haven’t gotten round to yet – The Bounty Hunters.


    • Chad, I’m a long time fan of Boone, regardless of whether he was playing the hero or the villain. I think his toughness and inherent menace was best used though when he was cast as the bad guy, or the anti-hero at least.


  3. Super review Colin, this is up there with the Great Westerns, every time I watch it it takes me with it on that fatal journey. Beautiful photography, top class acting and actually better than the very good novel on which it is based


  4. Excellent review Colin and it certainly belongs to the late 60s in its sometimes despairing tone and its inherent critique of a society on its way out. I wish it weren’t so glum (especially at the finish) but it is a beatufully shot, thematically rich and well-meaning movie – hard not to appreciate those virtues!


    • I know what you mean about the ending being something of a downer, but I honestly don’t see how it could have ended any other way and retained its integrity. And of course the outcome is foreshadowed in Newman’s first conversation with Cilento.


      • It certainly links it to the likes of EASY RIDER and the like, a real fin de siecle feel. It has tended to put me off wanting to revisit it though … which says nothing about the film, just that I’m a total softie!


            • Yes, The Molly Maguires is a fine picture, and well cast, but I’ll grant you it is hard going. I guess Ritt’s movies tend to be on the dour side.

              And James Wong Howe was a class act, whether he was shooting in black & white or colour.


                • No, I’ve never seen that one – sounds quite interesting though.
                  I recall hearing/reading somewhere that Howe was though to be such an expert at B&W photography that there were doubts as to whether or not he could transition successfully to colour films. I think his record shows he had no problem.


                  • HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER may be my favourite of his colour films – a sad and haunting movie but beautifully made. But then, Howe may just have been the greatest of a generation already fit to bursting with exceptional talents like Arthur Miller, Douglas Slocombe, John Alton, Nicholas Musuraca, Arthur Edeson, Joe Macdonald, Gregg Toland etc. Just got the Blu-ray of GRAPES OF WRATH and Toland’s work is transferred in truly breath-taking fashion.


                    • Absolutely. It’s quite staggering to think of the number of amazingly talented cinematographers (Jack Cardiff & Winton Hoch are another two) who emerged in those years.


  5. Great write up for a fine film. All of Newman’s “H” movies were impressive in their own ways. Hombre was a tough and beautiful film. I can’t think of many besides Newman that could have pulled off the character.


    • Thanks Brent. I believe Newman had a bit of a superstition regarding movies beginning with the letter H, and felt they were lucky for him. I’m not sure how true that is but he certainly did well in those 60s “H” titles.


  6. Wonderful piece on one of my very, very favorite westerns, Colin! When I first saw HOMBRE it affected me profoundly. I think you’re spot-on in describing it as straddling the fence between the morally complex 50s western and the more bleak, downbeat turn the genre was to take in the 70s.

    I really love Paul Newman’s performance in this; that stillness and watchful quality you allude to makes him very believable as a man raised among the Apache. I think this is among Diane Cilento’s best ever roles; earthy and pragmatic, also totally believable, and a woman worth the sort of sacrifice John Russell ends up making. The whole cast is terrific, with nice bits for Cameron Mitchell and BONANZA’s Steve Canary (getting a chance to play low down and mean). Sometimes a few of my friends and I would imitate Frank Silvera from this movie: “Hey, hombre, whatever is your name?” and “You don’t want the preetty lady?”

    Thank you for a thoughtful post that does this severely underrated movie proud.


    • Cheers for that Jeff. I think I mentioned The Third Secret over on your site when we talked about Fantastic Voyage. Diane Cilento has a pretty good role in that one too, and I recommend checking it out if you have the opportunity. Also The Naked Edge – a very talented actress.


  7. Uncommon western, despite its (slight) traditional overtones (“Stagecoach”, indeed). You probably know that Elmore Leonard disliked Budd Boetticher’s movie, “The Tall T”, whose script had been adapted by Burt Kennedy from Leonard’s short story, “The Captives”. The only element that Elmore Leonard appréciated in it was Richard Boone as Frank Usher. While he rejected almost everything else in Boetticher’s movie, Leonard judged Boone’s interpretation very satisfactory. So much that when he (Leonard) wrote “Hombre”, he managed for Boone to have a copy of his book, telling him that one of the characters in the novel had been modeled after him (Boone). I couldn’t tell for sure now if it was Cicero Grimes or some other character since I forgot this detail. But I think it was, yes. Years later, Elmore Leonard felt overjoyed when he found out that Richard Boone was playing the villain in Martin Ritt’s picture, “Hombre”. The one choice according to Elmore Leonard who had nothing to do with the casting. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?
    I love Martin Ritt’s western. “Hombre”, that is. And still feel impressed by your cleverness, Colin.


    • Hello Samuel. I wasn’t aware of Leonard’s dislike of The Tall T, which is such a great movie. It’s interesting that he did approve of Boone though, and that he wrote <strong>Hombre with him in mind. Little nuggets of information like this are fascinating and most welcome.


      • So what if Leonard didn’t like THE TALL T (nor did he like the 1957 3:10 TO YUMA). I haven’t read either story and am interested to read Leonard’s Western stories, but I know what he didn’t like about both of these were the additions (quite a bit of his dialogue is apprently kept in both of them). Burt Kennedy talked to me about adding the beginning (the “light” reel) of THE TALL T, that he built up the characters who would be killed by the outlaws and made you care about them (the story starts right out with the outlaws and the stage pulling in as I understand it). In 3:10 TO YUMA, neither of the two women were in the story at all–Daves and Halsted Welles created this part of it and in my opinion it makes the film, and I will say this strongly here; anyone who has read my piece “Saloon Girls and Ranchers’ Daughters: The Woman in the Western” knows how I feel about these two women and the way I see the whole movie and how strongly I feel about it (by contrast, in the 1997 remake James Mangold kept them but didn’t seem to know why they were there).

        Authors are proprietary of their work–it’s inevitable and in their nature, but movies exist as works on their own and it’s fair to judge them that way. The two Leonard adaptations in 1957 happen to be my favorite two Westerns of a strong year so obviously I believe directors and writers did well in these instances, and as someone devoted to Westerns will say Boetticher and Daves are both among the genre’s very best directors.

        On the other hand, I wish I could feel the way most people here do about HOMBRE. I wanted to like it when it came out but simply wasn’t taken with it. I knew it sustained a reputation later so saw it again with the same result. I’m pretty mild about Paul Newman for Westerns–there’s a narcissism about method actors and it’s one thing I don’t like about the direction it went in this period; also I think Newman eventually got past this and became a much better actor and like him very much in some of his later films (NOBODY’S FOOL especially). Still, it’s good material, and Ravetch and Frank always liked Westerns and were involved with some good ones earlier. Despite his good relationship with James Wong Howe, which shows a desire for artistry, Martin Ritt is an emphatic and unsubtle director for me most of the time and I guess that mostly accounts for it. The film makes its point but how interesting are these characters really? Just for starters, does anyone think that Richard Boone is as complex and interesting a villain here as in THE TALL T, in which Boetticher finds a way to win sympathy for Frank even though he is a similarly ruthless outlaw?

        I don’t mean to bring anyone down and I know this is an admired film and respect the opinions of others when I disagree. And I wouldn’t even say I dislike it, just that it’s not a major Western for me and does suffer from the kind of problems the genre had in the period that Colin describes so well.
        I am very interested in this transitional period in the genre, stayed with Westerns at the time even though I was often disappointed, and have thought a lot since about what was going on.

        Colin, I can only say that your defense of HOMBRE was very articulate and more interesting to me than the film itself.


        • Hi Blake. This discussion of an author’s vision clashing with the filmmaker’s interpretation is one that came up a while back, in relation to Graham Greene I seem to remember. I can see where both sides are coming from, but I tend to agree that the two works (story and film), while obviously linked, need to be assessed on their own terms. While a novel may need some compression to fit it into a standard movie running time, the opposite is usually the case with short stories, where they frequently need to be expanded.

          In the case of The Tall T, the movie’s opening section is important in defining the characters’ motivations. Boone’s outlaw is so charming that the audience need to be made aware of how ruthless he is capable of being. And it allows that striking transformation in Scott to take place – the moment when he realizes what has happened at the swing station, and his subtle but telling physical reaction, is a powerful little piece of cinema.

          I certainly agree on the importance of the two female characters in Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma – they add so much to the development and motivations of the Ford and Heflin characters, and help flesh the men out. There were so many false notes struck in Mangold’s very disappointing remake, but the failure to make any practical use of the two women definitely jumps out when you compare it to Daves’ original.

          As for Hombre itself, I think you make some interesting points here. The character of Russell is a difficult one to portray. From what I remember of the novel, Leonard wanted to emphasize the sense of Russell being a man apart, from the group and white society as a whole, and the influence of his Apache upbringing. I think Newman captured that very well, though the remoteness of the character makes empathy with him difficult. The roles played by Cilento and, to a lesser extent, Balsam are the ones with whom it’s easiest to identify. Still, even though Cilento’s performance is strong, I guess it does mean that the audience is asked to view things from a supporting character’s perspective rather than that of the traditional lead.


  8. A year or so ago I bought the book, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, and what a jewel. Three-Ten to Yuma was first printed in Dime Western Magazine in 1953 and The Tall T (originally titled The Captives) was printed in Argosy in Feb. 1955. I cannot say enough about Leonard’s talent for dialog. Great read for anyone interested in reading Elmore Leonard’s western writings before his crime stories defined him.
    Loved your review Colin. I saw Hombre quite some time ago but will have to watch it again after yours and everyone’s interesting comments.


    • Thanks Elise. I wholeheartedly second your recommendation of The Complete Western Stories by Elmore Leonard – it’s a great volume, and a must for any fan of westerns or Leonard in general.


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  10. Colin,

    Enjoyed your perceptive review of “Hombre”. I’m with Sergio with regard to this film . “Stagecoach” (1939), a microcosm of American society in the Thirties, was “updated” to reflect the Sixties, but without the humanity and optimism of the former.

    In my opinion the redeeming feature of this exercise is the acting from the carefully selected cast, strangely, ignored by the various Industry “Awards”.

    Colin, may I suggest an alternative conclusion to this film, without compromising the theme ? The disaffected protagonist be seriously wounded; a contrite “Jessie” cradling him in her lap, promises to return him to his “chosen people”. Whether or not he survives would be a matter for the viewers’ choice.


    • Hello Rod. The ending of the movie is pretty much the ending as written in the novel, if I’m remembering it correctly. Your idea of adding an element of ambiguity is an interesting one, allowing viewers to interpret it as they wish. Having said that, the script does have Russell predict his eventual fate early on.


  11. Hi Colin,

    For me “Hombre”- the movie, ( and not its source novel, which I have never read), is a disappointment, in that, it could have been a film that “defined” the U.S.A. in the Sixties.

    Unfortunately, it has received a treatment that is extremely heavy- handed – too dour, too cynical, too bitter and without sufficent humanity, humour or even a glimmer of optimism, to provide a little relief. Do we really need to be relentlessly “hammered over the head” to appreciate its message ?

    The fact that it successfully tapped into the American psyche at that time, is beyond doubt, as it was well received by both critics and the public when first released. Nevertheless, to my mind, it fails at being other than another “better than average Western”, when it could have been so much more.



    • Rod, the film has certainly divided opinion here – some readers being very fond of it and others less taken. I guess the most important thing is that it elicits some sort of response, be it positive or negative. And it’s interesting to see how each individual responds to the movie.


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  15. This is one of those films I was too young to understand any sort of deep meaning beyond the action. This is most likely why ii do not recall much positive of this one. Your review has worked, and on the list it goes. Am a big Boone fan.


    • Boone is great in everything he ever did, in my opinion. I certainly recommend giving the movie another go, Gord. And read the book by Leonard too if you get the chance.


  16. Excellent review of this excellent Newman performance. On a related note the new HBO Max documentary about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward by Ethan Hawke is fantastic. The use of readings, clips, and music is very moving. The wonder of cinema is brought back to life and how incredible these two people were. As a big Newman fan I got chills.


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