WESTERN/ SOCIAL COMMENTARY
Based on a book written by Elmore Leonard centering on a Caucasian, John Russell(Paul Newman) raised by Apache Indians who decides to let go his inheritance of a shabby inn left by his biological father after finding about his father's passing, and then agrees to tag along a cross country coax ride with other passengers on a stagecoach. And it is when things start to get interesting but have to go through a very long set up. Paul Newman is the Hombre since he grew up with the Indians, also including Fredric March as the deceitful doctor and Richard Boone continues his bad guy role. All I can say is that although I mildly enjoyed this film the second time around the ending is kind of a downer considering it's a movie of fiction.
2 out of 4
As a vast lover of western films, I always enjoy seeing alternative forms of storytelling within the context of the genre. As a revisionist western, Hombre defies many conventions. Instead of casting a caucasian actor in a Native American role, Homebre features a story about an Apache-raised white man who has to deal with the racial conflict of returning to a prejudiced civilization. The way the film approaches the subject matter is not to pin Cowboys and Native Americans on opposing sides of the spectrum but rather find a middle ground in protagonist John Russell who is interesting enough on paper before Paul Newman brings the role to life. Rather than telling its story through a spectacle of shootouts and horse chases, Hombre focuses on characters and dialogue. While some viewers may find the lack of action to slow down the feature which already comes from a stereotypically slow moving genre, I found that this revisionist approach is thoroughly innovative as an exploration of the Western genre. Hombre is a film that is all about charactes, and it has some interesting ones. This is because the screenplay rests at the heart of Hombre with a lot of insightful dialogue, discussing the difference between Cowboy and Native American cultures with raw honesty. The film is not bias in doing so, and it is one of the first major Westerns to depict Native American culture in a positive light after decades of simplistic depictions of the people as savages that need to be defeated by John Wayne. This makes it one of the more touching films to come from the era and a great sign of the postmodern period of change that the genre went through.
Considering that the story itself is very simplistic, the fact that the screenplay is full of vastly important subject matter and interesting characters which compensates for this. The slow burning nature of Hombre means that it is not always the most interesting, particularly when the dialogue is not being spoken. Yet director Martin Ritt still manages to find a way to make the silence in the film interesting, predominantly through the use of atmosphere.
While the film is built more upon screenplay than spectacle, there is no denying that it is a powerfully stylish experience. As a western, Hombre manages to keep itself as a low budget film by limiting its quantity of characters, locations and action. At times, the film relies on nothing more than the visual experience to tell the story. And with scenery, production design and costumes all being so extensively detailed, the entire experience feels nothing short of convincing. The bleak silence of the film may slow the experience down, but it also captures the grim and empty nature of the west while the visual experience works to keep things alive during the silence. Hombre tells its story largely through depicting the western landscape as it naturally is since there are so many underlying concepts of the American West which do not need to be explored through action. The scenery is all captured with strong wide-angled cinematography and gentle techniques, long shots which allow the atmosphere to develop naturally with minimal editing while emphasizing the beautiful nature of the landscape.
When it comes to the action, what few shootouts there are in Hombre prove very competently structured. The editing speeds up momentarily to intensify the experience, and because the rest of the film made use of such minimal editing it is all the more powerful by contrast. It just makes the style of the film all the more clear, and the intense progressive development of the story ensures that the intensity in the action sequences are fully dramatic.
But what keeps the story actively progressing and developing is the performance of Paul Newman.
Paul Newman's leading performance in Hombre is brilliant. In contrast to his role as Butch Cassidy two years later, Paul Newman's performance as John Russell in Hombre is far more restrained. He is very gentle and in tune with the world around him, conveying a sense of nihilism about the world that comes with being seen as a savage. He has such an interesting character, and he easily breathes life into the part which succesfully plays a sympathetic spirit. Paul Newman's beautiful eyes light up the screen and draw the focus straight to him, and this makes what little dialogue he has all the more effective. Paul Newman speaks with such a gentle passion as John Russell, and yet at the same time he grasps his weaponry without flinching. This captures the kind of Cowboy who is a relunctant soldier, a gentle soul drafted into a world of violence and reluctant but willing to fight for his existence as the world would force him to. Paul Newman's extensive level of character dedication in Hombre ensures that the film is not a mere star vehicle, but rather a truly touching film and a new challenge for the screen legend. His performance is just beautiful, inside and out.
The entire supporting cast make strong supporting efforts, but I found that Martin Balsam firm yet gentle effort as Henry Mendez stood out the most. He is easily convincing as a Mexican, and his normal level of sophistication is buried beneath the costume to the point that he is almost unrecognizable and yet still admirable.
So Hombre works powerfully as a postmodern revisionist western, and while its focus on characters and lack of action may slow it down, they also ensure that the experience is a thoroughly touching and insightful western thanks to Martin Ritt's strong eye for imagery and determination to ensure the powerful dialogue is captured in his vision alongside the magnificent leading performance from Paul Newman.
Newman is a good, but Richard Boone really steals the show as the villain. No doubt that he deserved Best Supporting Actor from 1967 over George Kennedy who won for Cool Hand Luke. But with a little more originality this could have been a great film instead of just a good one. Oh Well.