“Now it pays for you to be a white man for awhile.”
So says a Mexican saloon owner (Val Avery) to Paul Newman’s John Russell in Hombre, an underappreciated Western based on an early Elmore Leonard novel and directed by Martin Ritt. Russell is, indeed, a white man, but he was raised by Apaches after being kidnapped as a child. Now straddling two worlds, Russell cuts his hair and returns to town to claim an inheritance, which he uses to take a stagecoach in search of a new life.
If Stagecoach is an influence, so too is The Searchers, one of the elemental Westerns in regards to race. It’s not only that Hombre dramatizes the racism endured by Native Americans (and, to a different degree, Mexican Americans). It’s that the movie depicts the American West as a collision of codes. What unites the heroes of Hombre (and there aren’t many) is their capacity for mercy, not the color of their skin.
What unites the heroes of Hombre is their capacity for mercy, not the color of their skin.
The characters of Hombre are put to this test when the stagecoach is ambushed by outlaws and the passengers escape into the wilderness. Previously disdainful of Russell – they had voted to make him sit up top with the driver – they must now rely on him to survive.
Among the passengers is the bullying Cicero Grimes (a pug-faced Richard Boone), a pair of bickering young newlyweds (Margaret Blye and Peter Lazer) and a duplicitous “Indian agent” (Fredric March). We also have the pleasure of the company of Diane Cilento as Jessie, a practical, plainspoken boarding-house operator who tells it like it is, particularly to the stone-faced Russell. Speaking the way Dolly Parton sings – “I’ve been wedded and bedded and loved and let down,” she sighs at one point – Cilento is easily the life force of the movie.
She’s also its conscience, especially as the plot begins to hinge on whether or not Russell will strike out on his own – go with his survivalist instincts – or risk himself to protect this newfound community, including those who previously disdained him. (With his natural stoicism, Newman plays this tension perfectly.) Jessie is no softie – at one point she slaps that wife across the face – but she knows all too well the cost of living only for yourself. Hombre, in the end, honors the opposite: sacrifice.