One of my biggest misconceptions going into this feature was that Westerns never tackled the topic of racism. (You may call me a brainwashed and judgmental liberal if you like. I don’t mind.) I lumped them all in with The Searchers – which, incidentally, wasn’t as racist as I remembered but isn’t exactly condemning its characters’ biases either.
But a lot of Westerns tackle it. They just tend to examine it through the dewy and sad eyes of the white man such as Jimmy Stewart’s Broken Arrow. Hombre ups the ante by showing discrimination through the painfully blue eyes of Paul Newman. How can anyone look down on those pool colored irises? You’d have to be really evil. And boy, are the white people of Hombre evil.
Based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, Hombre introduces us to John Russell (Newman), a white man who was raised by Apaches and considers himself one of them. When his adopted father dies, and leaves him a boarding house, he bristles at the suggestion that he relearn to walk and talk as a white man. He sells the boarding house, and is on his way back out via stagecoach, but he can’t escape prejudice that easily.
His coach passengers – two of whom oversaw the starving reservation Russell grew up on — catch wind of his Apache upbringing, and insist he ride up top as not to contaminate them. They prefer the company of the rough and crude Grimes (the always wonderful Richard Boone). Surprise! He’s out to rob them. Now who wants to hang out with the Apache? Who thinks he should forgive their rotten attitude? Well, everyone!
I jest because this trope – racism as experienced by the white man – is still ongoing, as recently seen in the Avatar debates. Many moviegoers argued that Avatar couldn’t have centered on Neytiri – or that the Na’vi couldn’t have been anything but sexy human felines – because they couldn’t have identified with them.
Moviegoers need heroes who look and talk like they do to truly invest and sympathize with the storyline. Hombre couldn’t be about a real Apache, or a half-Apache, it had to be about a white man experiencing prejudice. Then we can truly appreciate how wrong it is.
Now, I do think there’s value in realizing that racism can be that encompassing – you lived with Apaches, so you ride up top. You can still contaminate us. Say, do you know how many drops of African blood you have in you? In Australia, you could marry an Aborigine and be considered black from that point on.
(Those who have seen Baz Luhrmann’s uneven Australia may have caught that.) The difference is, of course, that a white person can always go somewhere they’d be seen as white. Russell can, at any point he chooses, live as a white man. An Apache can’t.
That’s not to dismiss Hombre, though. This is Elmore Leonard, so this isn’t a cloying film. Russell is no victim. The characters don’t dislike him just because he’s an adopted Apache, it’s also because he’s pretty loathsome. He’s a hard-bitten man who is out strictly for himself, and who wastes no time crying about his lot in life. Newman’s blue eyes are never wet with tears, they never wince in anguish.
They burn with a righteous fury that becomes biblical once the criminal Grimes reveals the stagecoach is carrying a cache of money stolen from the mouths of hungry Apache. The showdown of the film isn’t passengers-against-the-robbers, it’s Russell as a punishing and vengeful angel, exacting justice for his starving people. I think even a certain Pale Rider might blanch at the sight of those eyes.
The tension only lifts when the earthy Jessie (Diane Cilento) finally stands up for the kindnesses she believes in. You can say she finally wakens his humanity and heroism, but I think it’s that he wants someone to stand by their golden rule proverbs.
Once that happens, he accepts the burden that was always his. If you wanted to get really metaphorical and say he steps forward to atone for their sins and save his people, well, I wouldn’t stop you.
(Hombre is on Netflix Instant, but only until April 30th. You might want to hurry! If you miss it, there’s still plenty of Western Wednesdays you can watch.)