Wednesday, 7 July 2021

On DVD - Tom Ryan examines the Western legends of Martin Ritt's HOMBRE (USA, 1966)

Martin Ritt

From John Ford’s
 Stagecoach (1939) through films such as Rawhide and Hangman’s Knot in the 1950s to The Hateful Eight (2015), stagecoach Westerns constitute a readymade sub-group of the genre. Their customary modus operandi is to cram a small group of characters together inside a coach travelling across an inhospitable landscape. Belongings are tied down on top, with a driver keeping the horses busy up front and a hired hand riding shotgun alongside him. The drama usually stems from tensions that arise inside the coach or from hostile forces outside, such as outlaws or marauding Indians, or from both. Scenarios frequently move them from inside the coach to stopovers en route, where horses are watered or replaced. And where danger often awaits. 

Elmore Leonard, "Hombre"
Cover of first edition

One example of the species is Hombre (1966), often overlooked in discussions of the Western. (1) Directed by Martin Ritt (1914 – 1990), it’s adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1961 novella by regular Ritt collaborators Irving Ravetch (1920 – 2010) and Harriet Frank Jr. (1923 – 2020), a husband-and-wife writing team also responsible for non-Ritt films such as Home from the Hill (1960) and The Reivers (1969). 


Shot in widescreen by veteran James Wong Howe, Hombre appeared at a time when a number of key directors making Westerns had become self-conscious about the genre’s dark side and the buried politics of the birth-of-a-nation stories towards which they had been inclined. The old-school Westerns might have had poetry in them, but when it came to a choice between presenting the facts and depicting legends, they very much tended towards the latter.


The revisionist Westerns still had romance, but they were politically much tougher. Hombre was released in the US five years after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); immediately following Sergio Leone’s trilogy of “man with no name” spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, For a Few Dollars More in ’65, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in ’66); a couple of years before his Once Upon a Time in the West (1968); three years before Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch ( 1969), and five before Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). 

Unabashedly wearing his left-wing politics on his sleeve, Ritt was a filmmaker accustomed to challenging the status quo. After an extensive career in the theatre and television, he’d been blacklisted in the early 1950s, a time in the US when dissent was reflexively mistaken for treason. Before Hombre, he’d made eleven films (including Edge of the City, Hud  and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), and, afterwards, he went on to make other solid, socially aware dramas such as The Molly MaguiresThe Great White HopeSounderThe Front and Norma Rae


Given this, it’s no surprise to find him joining his fellow directors in their uneasy relationship with the Western. Like earlier films such as Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway and Robert Aldrich’s Apache (both 1950), Hombre casts a scathing eye across the kind of corruption that went hand-in-hand with the so-called “civilising” of the American West, and the marginalisation of Native Americans in the process. 

That said, Ritt is more like a visitor to the terrain than someone who knows it intimately. He’s less interested in challenging the conventions of the genre – the landscapes that resonate with meaning, the general sense of a wilderness being settled, the topography of the small towns that define their place in the history of settlement, the confrontations between the law and those who follow their own rules – than in telling a straightforward story about a man trapped between two cultures. 


Hombre is set in the 1880s when the development of the railroad had made horse-drawn travel along dusty roads a thing of the past, except in out-of-the-way places like Sweetwater (in Arizona), where the film opens. (Leone sets his Once Upon a Time in the West  in the same location during an earlier era of the West's development). And it’s not by chance that accounts of it frequently liken it to Stagecoach, an old-fashioned, Western made almost three decades earlier.

Paul Newman as Ishkanay in the film's opening shot

Like Ford’s classic, it gathers its characters together during the film’s first 30 minutes before placing its title character (played by Paul Newman) aboard a coach in the company of a cross-section of white Americans. Newman’s “hombre” is a Caucasian who’d been carried off by Apaches when he was a child and given the name of Ishkanay, before being found among prisoners at an army fort. However, after being adopted by a wealthy white man and renamed John Russell, he fled back to the Apaches. (2)

Paul Newman as John Russell

His shifting circumstances in the film are implicit in his style of dress. We first meet him as a long-haired Apache dressed in a grubby buckskin shirt and leggings, wearing a dark red headband and shoulder pouch, with a holstered gun on his hip. He’s at work, cornering a herd of horses at a waterhole, the incident serving as a metaphor for what is about to happen to him. And before long, he’s become John Russell again and his appearance has changed. His hair is cut shorter and he’s now wearing a clean shirt and a loose-fitting vest, along with the jeans, boots and hat that give him the appearance of just another cowboy. 


His past is thus camouflaged. That allows him to see the white society in which he’s about to be entrapped as an insider as well as an outsider. Even though his skin has been browned by the outdoors, he looks Caucasian, so he’s the recipient of the advantages that go along with that. And the film’s dramatic strategy encourages us, initially at least, to see events and the other characters largely through his eyes, while the regular close-ups of him – from the opening shot onwards – delineate him as a man passing judgement on what he’s seeing. His mindset, however, remains mysterious.


Soon after the opening sequence, we see him doing business as a horse trader with the local stage-line proprietor, Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam), a Mexican with whom he’s on friendly terms. When he’s summoned to Delgado’s relay station by Mendez, his host greets him simply as “Hombre” (3), going on to explain that the stage-line is closing down because of the imminent arrival of the railroad and that he’s going to find himself out of a job. 


He then advises his friend, now known again as John Russell, about what his next step might be. As the sole heir to his late foster father, Russell has become the owner of the local boarding-house, which he can continue to run as he wishes or sell to the highest bidder. Either way, Mendez explains to him, it’s going to fund his return to white society.


Their conversation establishes the social hierarchy of the place. Although it’s evident in the interactions between the characters throughout the film, it’s spelt out in the dialogue. “You can be a white, Indian or Mexican,” Mendez tells his friend. “Now it pays you to be a white man… Put yourself on the winning side for a change.” Like Russell, he knows from first-hand experience what it’s like to be seen as an outsider in a white society. “A Mexican is closer to a white man than an Apache, I’ll tell you that,” he adds ruefully.

Diane Cilento

Russell follows his advice, but very much on his own terms. He visits the boarding-house, meets with its feisty manager, Jessie (Diane Cilento), and tells her he’s had an offer that he’s going to accept: the house “for a herd of horses down in Contention”. She asks what will happen to her. Since there’s no mention of her in the will, he tells her matter-of-factly, “It turns out I don’t have any responsibility toward you at all, do I?”


Although his status changes significantly during the course of the film, he has the mind-set of a survivor. He buys a “mudwagon” ticket to Contention – the stagecoach has officially closed down so the second-string mode of transportation is all that’s available – finding himself thrust into the company of half a dozen others, all heading out of Sweetwater for their own reasons. Billy Lee (Peter Lazer) and Doris (Margaret Blye) are a young married couple, her looking for something more out of her life, him overwhelmed by her dissatisfaction and the stresses of trying to find work in the rundown town. Jessie is strong-willed and well-equipped to hold her own against the disappointments that have dominated her life, the latest being her relationship with Sweetwater’s down-on-his-luck sheriff, Braden (Cameron Mitchell), who’s looking for way out rather than a wife. 

Richard Boone


Then there’s Dr. Favor, a retired Indian agent (Frederic March), who’s been embezzling government funding intended for the Apaches on the reservation he’d been running, and his much younger wife, Audra (Barbara Rush), a woman who’s been used to getting her own way and is willing to turn a blind eye to her husband’s transgressions. Also on board is Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone), who clearly means trouble. Mendez is in the driver’s seat. 


It’s worth noting that, in Leonard’s novella, there’s no Jessie, Doris is a young woman known only as “the McLaren girl”, who’d been abducted by Apaches but had escaped after a month, and Billy Lee is known as Carl Allen. A young innocent in the wild West, the unmarried Carl is also the book’s first-person narrator, so we’re introduced to all of the characters and the situations which arise through his account of them. However, while he means well, he’s not altogether reliable in his assessments of them or the events that unfold around them. Jessie (Diane Cilento), doesn’t have an equivalent in Leonard’s story. Grimes (Richard Boone) is named Braden in the book.


The changes and additional characters augment the malaise that hangs over Sweetwater in the film. And the poisonous racism that pervades it. Even Mendez, who’s otherwise supportive of Russell, describes him to Jessie as “a red devil”. Theirs is a rundown world which everyone is trying to escape, and, as is often the way with Westerns, it serves as a compelling microcosm of the nation of which it’s a tiny part. There’s no pioneering splendour in the lives the film’s characters are living, no commitment to community, no sense of a civilization on the rise.

The stagecoach passengers look to Russell during the holdup

None of them is happy about the hand that fate has dealt them. The only way to survive is to follow Jessie’s example. She doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for herself – like the pouting Doris – but shrugs her shoulders at her ill fortune and seeks out the next opportunity. Russell, however, has no interest in their problems. 


Seen in a wider context, he could be taken as a familiar American archetype, an enigmatic hero in waiting, one who initially declines to become involved in conflagrations or confrontations that he believes are somebody else’s business. Classically illustrated by Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca (1942), this hero has to be persuaded that there are moral issues involved, social responsibilities that define what it means to be a member of a society, or simply to be human. 


As Russell waits at the station for the coach to arrive, a young soldier (Larry Ward) arrives, buys his ticket and takes his seat, explaining that he’s off to get married. Then Grimes makes his entrance, a saddle thrown over his shoulder. He’s told that there’s no room for him, so he saunters over to Russell and demands his ticket. The soldier intervenes, telling him that he’s out of order. Grimes immediately sizes him up as a likely target and threatens violence if the soldier doesn’t give him his ticket. Russell watches but displays no interest in coming to the soldier’s defence. Nor does anyone else. The soldier leaves. “You shoulda done something,” Jessie tells Russell (4). “It wasn’t my business,” Russell replies, unmoved. 


Margaret Blye, Barbara Rush, Diane Cilento

Yet earlier in the film, during the meeting with Mendez at Delgado’s station, when a pair of thugs (Skip Ward and Val Avery) had harassed two of Russell’s Apache friends (Pete Hernandez and Merrill C. Isbell), he had immediately taken that as his business. Armed with a rifle, he’d stepped in and swiftly put the thugs in their place. The contrast between the two scenes testifies to his alienation from white society and what is tantamount to a cold-blooded indifference to its problems.


Later in the film, nobody comes to Russell’s defence when Favor insists – claiming that it’s at his wife’s bidding – that he should ride in the shotgun seat alongside Mendez. Not even the generally outspoken Jessie. White society’s racism not only spurns those of a different colour or race but also anyone who’s come into close contact with them. 


The conversation between the passengers – Audra’s smug contempt for Indians makes her as obnoxious as Grimes is dangerous – has already indicated that, as soon as Russell’s time on the reservation becomes public knowledge, the news will transform him into an outsider. Russell’s anger is palpable, but he offers no protest. He’d expected nothing more from his travelling companions. 

Richard Boone, Barbara Rush, Frederic March


However, during the film’s latter stages, they find that they need his know-how and his fighting skills when Grimes turns out to be more than just an opportunistic bully. He’s also the ringleader of the motley group of no-goods who hold up the stage in order to get their hands on Dr. Favor’s stolen booty. 


The others in his gang are the disaffected Braden, the two thugs Russell had earlier confronted, and an unnamed Mexican who also addresses Russell as “hombre” and who could easily be mistaken as a trespasser from a Peckinpah Western (Frank Silvera). Audra is taken hostage while the other passengers on the coach manage to escape with the money, fleeing back towards Delgado’s station. But they’re not going to get there without a fight.


Hombre’s sympathies are clearly with Russell at the same time as it calls into question his refusal to be concerned on others’ behalf. Superficially, he has a lot in common with the kind of hero that Randolph Scott plays in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown cycle, strong silent types, laconic men of principle with a potent pragmatic streak, individuals who go their own way on their own terms. And, like them, he’s given a great final line. Warned by Grimes in the lead-up to the closing showdown that he’s putting himself at great risk, his response is of the devil-may-care kind: “We all die. It’s just a question of when.” 


But he’s also very different from these men. One can’t imagine a Scott character not taking a stand against Grimes at the coach station, or remaining aloof from the anguish of his fellow travellers. The further the film goes, the more we’re encouraged to question his responses to the situation in which circumstances have placed him. Like the classical Western hero, a torn character who conventionally rides away at the end, or dies, Russell doesn’t fit in. 


His torment is that, unlike Shane or The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards or Scott’s characters in the Ranown cycle who want to fit in but who depart for destinations somewhere “between the winds”, Russell has nowhere to go. Strategically eschewing any mythological account for why this might be, the socially conscious Ritt provides specific reasons for Russell’s displacement. He’s the creation of his personal history, not the human embodiment of a moral force invented to set the film’s world on the right course. 


Russell is a divided character and, indeed, a potentially tragic one: white by nature, but Apache in spirit. But the resolution it proposes to that seeming contradiction is, to put it bluntly, that it’s the Apache in him that needs to be exorcised. (5) That is, he needs to accept the moral imperatives of white society – largely articulated by Jessie in the film, but also implicit in its point of view – and to act on them. In other words, in order to be saved, he needs to be “tamed”. 

Ishkanay dealing with the racist thug (Skip Ward)
at Delgado's Station


If this reading of the film is accurate, Hombre might deserve a place alongside those other Westerns that turn their attention to the genre’s dark side, but its impulses can only generously be described as progressive. And its deeply rooted xenophobic undercurrent renders it problematic. Its drama pivots on questions of choice and social responsibility, but it firmly grounds the answers in the moral imperatives of the old-school Western. (6)


(1)       Although Will Wright in his classic study of the genre refers to it as “classical”, placing it in the company of ShaneDodge CityDestry Rides AgainDuel in the SunYellow SkyThe Far CountryVera Cruz and Canyon Passage. See Will Wright, Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western, University of California Press, 1975, p. 146 


(2)       Russell’s character in the film is partly based on the experiences of Jimmy McKinn, who was kidnapped as an 11-year-old by Geronimo and his band in 1885, given the name of Santiago, assimilated into the Apache way of life, and eventually rescued against his will. Via a shot taken by well-known Arizona photographer Camillus “Buck” Fly (1949 – 1901), he’s the boy seated in the foreground of a group of Apaches who’s linked to Russell by a slow dissolve in Hombre’s closing image. Click here


(3)       The Urban Dictionary points to the colloquial use of “hombre” as a slang term of endearment for a male, an indication that the speaker is happy to see him. The dictionary, an American one, offers “dude” or “homie” as alternatives (often preceded by “Yo”). The Australian equivalent might be “mate!” (or, rather, “maaaate!”)


(4)       In Leonard’s novella, the sentiment expressed in the line is given to Carl, Billy Lee’s equivalent.


(5)       It would have been interesting if the coach had encountered “untamed” Apaches during its journey, people who didn’t know about Russell’s background and who saw him, even though his skin has been browned by exposure to the elements, as just another blue-eyed paleface.


(6)       The late Australian filmmaker Tim Burstall (1927 – 2004) worked as an attachment on the film.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.