HOMBRE — Paul Newman Can’t Abide Your Bullcrap

by Austin Vashaw

Release Details

Hombre is now available in a limited edition of 3000 units from Twilight Time.

Four years after the well-regarded western Hud, the director, writers, and star teamed up again to craft another film together. In this Western based on an Elmore Leonard novel, Newman plays John Russell, a white man who spent his childhood raised by Apaches before being adopted by a white benefactor. John took on an Indian name and grew to identify with the natives and their plight after experiencing for himself the hardscrabble life on the reservation, where resources were extremely short.

John Russell’s Indian upbringing isn’t the focus of the picture in any strict plot sense, but rather the filter through which his character perceives and understands the world. He chooses to live as an Apache, despite having the option not to. A life of difficulty has created in him an instinct for self-preservation and a deep mistrust of others. While a good man, he lacks courtesy and compassion.

A coachman named Henry Mendez (the phenomenal Martin Balsam as a shockingly convincing Mexican) informs John that he has inherited a profitable boarding house in town, and tries to convince him to give up his Apache lifestyle and return to white civilization. Having few other options, John agrees to look into it. Upon his inspection, rather than taking ownership, he chooses to sell it, effectively terminating the employment of its very capable operator Jessie (Diane Cilento).

Circumstances place John and Jessie on a stagecoach journey together, along with Mendez driving and a few other passengers along for the ride including a wealthy Indian Affairs officer (Fredric March) and a pretty obvious bad guy (Richard Boone) who ends up robbing the group and leaving them stranded in the wilderness. As the most able person of the group, John’s creed of self-reliance at the cost of others is challenged; if the party is to survive it can only be with his help.

Jessie’s character is probably the most important voice in the film, constantly challenging John’s callousness and imploring him to exercise compassion. Outspoken and self-reliant, she’s tough gal who has made her own way. Unlike John, her struggles have made her more mindful of others’ needs, not more self-centered. She’s not a hypocrite, either — throughout the film, she inconveniences herself to help others. The dynamic between these two characters, already strained by his being responsible for her current unemployment, is thematically at the heart of the film.

Viewing this now, I think we’re a bit accustomed to the familiar story device of white men who spends time with Indians and come to understand their ways — A Man Called Horse, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and even Avatar. Hombre predates these, though I suppose the original version of this storytelling device is James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last Of The Mohicans.

John Russell is a complex character with conflicting emotions and values, and Newman delivers a really commendable performance. His character is full of paradoxes; polite but firm, quiet but well-spoken, both selfish and selfless, compassionate to Indians but resentful of whites, gentle but ready to enact violence, and generally marked by a sort of defeated nobility. Of course, this is Paul Newman so there’s also a roguish charm to his character as well.

While packing tense action and shootouts, Hombre is first and foremost a character piece, pitting two conflicting life philosophies against each other and showing us the result.

The Package

Twilight Time released Hombre on May 12 in a limited edition of 3000 units.

It comes packed in a transparent white case, which seems to have become the new Twilight Time norm. I like this; it’s a classy look that provides a better sense of identity than the standard blue cases.

The package includes the ever-present and always excellent Twilight Time staple of an 8-page booklet with notes by Julie Kirgo.

Special Features and Extras

Theatrical Trailer (2:21)

A/V Out.

Available at Screen Archives Entertainment.

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