By March of 1967 things were falling apart. America was in the midst of massive cultural changes, and while the summer of love was fast approaching, beyond it waited the violent turbulence of 1968. In Hollywood, things had never been more uncertain. The old studio system had come crumbling down. Splintered into pieces by a Supreme Court anti-monopoly ruling, weakened by the emergence of television, and shaken by the deaths of many of its moguls, directors, and stars, the Dream Factory was a shell of its former self.
One bright spot in ’60s film was the career of Paul Newman. A star since the late ’50s, he’d emerged alongside other Method actors like Brando, Clift, and Dean, but as the ’60s progressed he’d only seen his star rise. Behind him lay The Hustler and Hud, and ahead of him was the smash hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it was 1967 that marked his transformation into something more than an actor. In 1967, Newman underwent a process to which only a few actors are subject: he became the movie embodiment of an idea.
In their day, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Gary Cooper had represented a kind of middle-American everyman. Bogart, mostly after his death in 1957, had become an anti-authoritarian hero. And John Wayne became perhaps the most lasting symbol Hollywood ever produced. At this point, Wayne is perhaps the most iconic actor who ever lived. Whether you love him or hate him, you must admit that Wayne’s legacy has superseded his filmography. To evoke his name is to summon the image of a certain archetypal American male.
In 1967, Newman came into his own as a cultural symbol. This was due mostly to his role as a rebellious chain gang convict in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke, but it’s interesting to look at his performance in Martin Ritt’s Hombre, which preceded Luke by seven months. The film was Newman’s sixth and last collaboration with Ritt (they’d had hits and misses, most notably Hud in 1963). The film, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, is the combination of two Western tropes: the white man raised by Indians, and the stagecoach ride in which a band of strangers are forced to build a makeshift community.
Newman stars as John Russell, a white man who has been raised by Indians. When he discovers that his father has died and left him a house, Newman cuts his hair and heads to town. He wants to sell the house in exchange for a herd of horses. On a long cross-country stagecoach trip, he finds himself among a mismatched gang of characters: Jessie, a straight-talking single woman; Billie Lee and Doris Blake, a young unhappily married couple; Mendez, the Mexican stagecoach driver; Dr. and Mrs. Favor, a haughty couple who have some connection to the Indian reservation where Newman used to live; and Cicero Grimes, a mysterious thug of a man played with evil relish by Richard Boone. Not long into the trip there’s a hold-up and Newman finds himself having to lead this band of oddballs and miscreants out of the wilderness.
There’s a built-in problem to the white-man-raised-by-Natives story line that is almost impossible to overcome, an unintentional condescension that mars any film it appears in. The film wants to be a good liberal message picture that educates its audience on the injustices showered down on the Native American, but it does it with a cast of white people. There’s not a single speaking part for a Native American in this entire film.
This failure isn’t a crippling for the film, however, because the racial element of the story is secondary to the story of the outsider and the stagecoach full of strangers. This primary storyline works extremely well. Ritt keeps a focus on the characters—and he was always a good director of actors—and his cast is superb. Diane Cilento provides us with one the strongest female characters in Westerns as the brutally honest Jessie. As the Favors, Fredric March and Barbara Rush create a fascinating portrait of a marriage between two essentially rotten people. And Richard Boone is perfect as Cicero Grimes, the main villain of the piece. What a face this man had. Some actors are said to be leathery, but Boone’s face looks like a piece of rawhide left baking in the sun. His casual violence and total lack of empathy are frightening. You don’t want to be in a stagecoach with this guy.
At the center of the film is Paul Newman, in one of his best performances. There’s a stillness about him here that you rarely saw in his performances at the time. In the ’50s, he had been kind of a ham. Don’t get me wrong, he’d always been a movie star, but in something like Somebody Up There Likes Me (his breakout role) he was, frankly, a Brando knockoff. By the ’60s, however, he’d developed as an actor, grown more introverted. In Hombre you find an economy of expression that foreshadowed his late-career performances. The less he does, the more you can’t take your eyes off him.
Hombre isn’t perfect (most films aren’t), but it is a fine Western. It’s a brutal piece of business, and it could teach newer filmmakers a thing or two about violence. The scene of Newman smashing a cowboy in the face with the butt of a rifle while the guy’s taking a shot of whiskey is an excellent example of how violence is more effective the less it’s used.
Ritt’s cinematographer was the great James Wong Howe, and he turned in a gorgeous looking picture. Western landscapes rarely seemed so unforgiving. Watching Newman lead his band through these wilds, you can see why he was such an attractive figure to the counter culture in 1967. Years before, in 1939, John Wayne had become a star in John Ford’s Stagecoach, another story of an outsider who takes command of a stagecoach in the unforgiving wilderness. Look at that film and then see this one. See the changes in attitudes toward native peoples and in the relationship between the outsider and society. In Ford’s film, the outsider becomes a part of the community. In Ritt’s 1967 film, the outsider stays outside because the community itself is fundamentally flawed.