Hombre for Newman
"Hombre" is both a good and seriously frustrating western which thanks to a good performance from Paul Newman ends up being more than average. The good is that it takes what is quite a generic western storyline of a group of stage coach passengers having to protect themselves from Outlaws and embellishes it to make the cliche seem more interesting. But then it is frustrating because whilst it embellishes this familiar story and introduces ideas such as John Russell being treated poorly for having been raised by Apaches it never really develops them, preferring to deliver on the cliche aspect of the story than the intelligence. It means that whilst "Hombre" ends up being an above average western with some brilliant spikes of action it just feels like the basis for something more was wasted.
Having both been raised by Apaches and a white man in town, John 'Hombre' Russell (Paul Newman - Torn Curtain) prefers to live with the Indian's on their reservation but finds himself returning to town when he inherits a house. Having headed to town to sell the house he ends up on a stage coach with a group of passengers including Dr. Favor (Fredric March) and his wife Audra (Barbara Rush) who take exception to John when they learn he lives with the Indians. But when the stage coach is attacked by a group of Outlaws and the passengers are left defenceless in the middle of nowhere they need John not only to lead them to safety but also deal with the Outlaws who come back after them.
Whilst "Hombre" is based upon an Elmore Leonard novel the idea of a wagon load of people coming under attack in the middle of nowhere isn't new and on that basis "Hombre" sort of reminds me of the "Dakota Incident" from 1957. As such for the most the storyline plays out like you expect which combines moments of action with character interactions as those trying to survive the attack in the middle of nowhere don't get on.
But what makes "Hombre" both good and frustrating are the embellishments and that mainly means the drama surrounding the character of John Russell a white man raised by Apaches. We initially see him being treated like dirt by some of the passengers but then when trouble hits they need him to help them survive. That embellishment brings out the hurt which John feels as he doesn't feel he should help those who disrespect him. But what is frustrating is that whilst there is this depth and conflict it doesn't get the attention it deserves.
And the same can be said of the rather strange and strained friendship which forms between John and Jessie as it adds a layer of interest but never allowed to really establish itself. It almost feels like director Martin Ritt wanted to allow us to feel the depth but for us to make up our own minds about certain things, which is good because there is nothing worse than being spoon fed everything but you feel that a bit more depth wouldn't have gone a miss.
Despite this frustration and the fact that when not focussing on the characters relationships it is a generic western, as generic westerns go it is entertaining. It would have been so easy to deliver action which is no more than a melee of gun fire but there is some real thought to the action in "Hombre". The initial attack on the wagon whilst not that unexpected is still clever and the first fight back with John laying wait for the Outlaws to get close is exciting. The same can be said of the stand off which leads to the final action, because it isn't just a barrage of gun fire it has atmosphere and that is one thing which "Hombre" has in bucket loads.
What is also frustrating is that Paul Newman delivers a performance as John Russell which ends up superior to the movie and you just wish the rest of the movie had been as good as him. There is the quietness which Newman gives Russell but also that fire which you can see simmering in his eyes it makes him fascinating because whilst seemingly cool you know he can snap at any time. And as such that hatred which stokes his fire manifests itself brilliantly and often in a clever manner as he not only deals with the Outlaws but also the conflicts within the group. It is because Newman delivers such a brilliant performance that Diane Cilento, Fredric March and Margaret Blye feel weak in comparison yet none of them actually deliver a bad performance.
What this all boils down to is that "Hombre" is both good and frustrating. It's good because it is full of atmosphere and clever action as well as making a familiar storyline seem fresh with a few embellishments. But then it is frustrating because it sets up this interesting dynamic of racial hatred but never fully develops it, leaving too much up to the watcher to read into it. Never the less "Hombre" is one of Paul Newman's best performances and it is Newman who keeps "Hombre" as more than just a good but average western.