Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Man Who Could Cut It

His name is John Russell but the title of this 1967 western is Hombre, an appellation by which the protagonist is just as often known. What can you make of a man called hombre? Like so many great westerns of the 60s, he's peculiarly indistinct, disconnected from various kinds of social groups; in this case the operative category being ethnicity. Based on a book by Elmore Leonard, it's an effective film, its plot about a diverse group of travellers menaced by bandits serving as a loose allegory of social division based on race and gender identity.

"You can be white, Indian, or Mexican," Mendez, a Mexican stagecoach driver played by Martin Balsam, tells Russell. "Now it pays you to be a white man for a while." Russell, played by Paul Newman, is white but has lived among the Apache most of his life, working among the Reservation police who are otherwise all Apache by blood. But Russell got his name from a white man who cared for him for some years as a child. Now the elder Russell is dead and Newman's character has inherited a boarding house and a pocket watch.

Arguably the real protagonist of the film is Jessie, the woman who runs the boarding house, played by Diane Cilento. She informs Russell boldly that she has no claim to the place but she's dedicated her life to it, as though daring him to kick her out. He kicks her out. He sells the place.

It's hard to tell what Russell's thinking or feeling most of the film. He generally has the same calm, tranquil expression and it's more through the things he chooses not to do that we gain some insight into his motives. As he waits at the stagecoach office, he makes no effort to assist a man who's bullied out of his ticket by the sinister Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone). He recognises the injustice but he's seen how the world goes. It's no wonder he feels no sympathy for Jessie; what's one boarding house compared to the forced relocation of Native Americans?

So Jessie tries to get the Sheriff (Cameron Mitchell) to marry her. She has been sleeping with him and he seems angry when she kicks him out of her room before Russell arrives. But he cites his dangerous profession as grounds for turning her proposal down. "I'm doing you a favour," he says. "Any time a man weasels out on you," she replies, "it turns out that he's doing you a favour. Well, maybe you are, Frank." She's seen how the world goes, too.

Jessie and Russell end up on the same stagecoach along with Grimes, a young couple, and Dr. Favor (Fredric March) and his wife (Barbara Rush). Dr. Favor is an Indian agent, a politician who acts as liaison to Native Americans for the U.S. government, a man largely concerned with the bureaucracy of relocation. He quickly shows himself as a hypocrite, talking about how sympathy for the Apache is only humane but when he finds out about Russell's background he insists the man not be allowed to ride inside the stage. Then the stagecoach is beset by a group of outlaws and the passengers find themselves forced to cross desert on foot with the bandits in pursuit; Russell becomes de facto leader as the only one among them who seems to know what he's doing.

The thematic argument of the film is essentially carried on between Jessie and Russell whose experience has made them the only ones qualified; she believes in helping people even if they don't deserve it, he doesn't see why he should make the effort, particularly when doing so might endanger the group. The end of the film leaves it somewhat ambiguous as to whether the terrible thing you can't escape is altruism or misanthropy. In a sense, the two are related; you can't treat people better than they deserve unless you think they don't deserve it.

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