The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I return to kick off the back nine of 2014 with our duo post book slash movie reviews. What? Not into golf metaphors? Fine then. Where was I? For this, in honor of summer, we’ll shake the dust off with a classic western tale by the great and late-Elmore Leonard. What’s that you say? You’re not a big fan of the venerable oater? Hmm…maybe I’ll convince you otherwise, ‘cuz I’m ain’t backing off.
One of my favorite authors, Elmore Leonard mastered the western right along with the crime tale. The latter getting more publicity of late, his svelte prose was certainly honed out on the prairie with the taciturn folk on any side of Manifest Destiny. Scraping out life, and death, in all its harsh glory. As usual, the wordy one will peruse his 1961 novel, which served as the basis for its 1967 film adaptation, which I’ll examine. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: John Russell was raised as an Apache. Acquiring the name only after a white man reclaimed him years later. Eventually returning to them, even serving as a member of the tribal police. Now the time has come for him to leave the San Carlos reservation behind and live again as a white man, if he can. The stagecoach passengers he’s traveling with want little to do with this man they call “Hombre.” Forcing him to ride in the boot with the driver. When outlaws overtake them though, they change their tune, sure enough. Suddenly, they must rely on Russell’s guns and his ability to survive in the desert. They now must follow the shunned one…or die.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
Jessie: “Mr. Russell, we’re getting more and more worried about you. If you can tell them to shoot Mrs. Favor without flickin’ an eyelash, we’re beginning to wonder how you feel about the rest of us.”
John Russell: “You’re in a lot of trouble.”
Jessie: “Then will you tell me why we keep trotting after you?”
John Russell: “Because I can cut it, Lady.”
Admittedly, this was my selection. I’m the western enthusiast among the two of us. The film’s story was one of the first that sparked my interest in Elmore Leonard. Nominating it allowed a look at the source novel…er, long novella…and compare it with the movie I saw long ago one afternoon on TV. My aunts, all big-time Paul Newman fans, saw it first-run. Conversed no end about the film at the local watering hole — their mother’s home. Naturally, this intrigued their nephew secondhand, and I didn’t happen to care how ‘blue‘ King Cool’s eyes were.
Let’s just get this out pronto, as Elmore would’ve appreciated. Hombre was one of the truly underrated films from the 60s. I recall one reviewer once said it was more 1960s disguised as 1860s, which would be a tad unfair in my estimation. Many revisionist themes began to peak during this “Swinging” decade, continuing the trend dispelling Hollywood’s long-held racial stereotypes of previous eras. Westerns included, and the Dickens of Detroit was more than up for the task. Telling a tale as only he could, which this production successfully rendered, I believe.
I’ll quote from my colleague Colin’s wonderful 2013 review, which I heartily recommend reading by the way, that captured what this film adaptation effectively expressed:
“Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, Hombre is the closest to the traditional western. The basic structure owes much to John Ford’s classic Stagecoach, but it’s a much more cynical affair. The two films do share the vital element of spiritual redemption for their hero, but Ritt’s movie reaches that point in a more tragic and bitter way.”
In some ways, Hombre‘s protagonist bore a resemblance to the anti-heroes of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns of the period, but with little of their operatic stylings. What you’d expect from this writer. Leonard’s stern character of John Russell (Paul Newman during his ‘H’ movie period), who categorically rejected the ways of his own race, balanced against those very same people who’ve done identical to him. Simply by knowing he sides with “…those dirty Indians.” The parable driven more by the conflict within those thrown together in the mud wagon than the outlaws wishing to rob it.
Like the novel, the film’s wears its racial morality on its sleeve, proudly.
Dr. Favor: “You’ll learn something about white people. They stick together.”
John Russell: “They better.”
A white man raised so differently in his formative years, Russell the result of white, Mexican, and Apache cultures — all of them in tow on this stagecoach journey. Not completely fitting in with any of them. Obviously more comfortable as an Apache. Inheriting a stead from the man who gave him his name. Set to sell it for horses in an out of town sale rather than deal with those who’ve outcast him for being neither fish nor fowl. Even a rare attempt to help, the ex-soldier at the way station venturing to placate the villain of the piece, the great and too often undervalued Richard Boone (chewing the scenery as only he could), is rebuffed. “I didn’t ask for any.”, the rejoinder.
Not likeable by any stretch, but a singular soul tailor-made for a western, if there ever was one.
The underrated director, actor, and playwright, who worked in film and theater, Martin Ritt wouldn’t seem at first a natural fit for a tense tale in the rough environs of the desert and racial divide. However, his passion for expressing the struggles of inequality based on his own history (caught up in HUAC’s red scare of the 50s) rights that notion. His film’s distinctive opening using vintage photographs of Indians in the life relegated them by their conquerors, a neat montage that spoke volumes without a word spoken. Elmore would’ve been proud. Ritt’s sensitive approach did him well in a career spanning a number genres (one that Kevin highlighted last year), and here.
I’m also in complete agreement with Colin’s deft appraisal of both the original and remake of 3:10 to Yuma.
The film’s distinct look aided by the noted Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe in another of his splendid widescreen efforts. Establishing the author’s shorthand and Ritt’s sweep for this part of Arizona — Pima County, Tucson, and Coronado National Forest locations, and some right here in Southern California, as well. Visually, this carried over an aspect from the other first-rate western film adaptation of Leonard’s. 3:10 to Yuma. No, not the 2007 mishmash, but the 1957 Delmer Daves gem. Like here, it handsomely framed the unvoiced character common to all in this genre. The arid, desolate landscape used to support these morality tales.
It’s fair to say, a number of things are foreshadowed throughout the film.
Still, it all comes down to words, doesn’t it? Especially when adapting an eloquent wordsmith like this. Given his usual sparseness, screenwriters were compelled to augment Leonard’s product for movies. Everyone did it, they almost had to1. The best of those emulated the style of the author, a notable screenwriter himself. Not as easy as it sounds — yeah, I’m cutting an eye over at the aforementioned James Mangold remake as a prime violator of the maxim. Give credit to Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. for not screwing up the assignment here.
For example, guess which is whose:
Henry Mendez: “Hombre, which name today, which do you want?”
John Russell: “Anything but bastard will do.”
“Take a good look at Russell. You will never see another like him as long as you live.”
Again, it’s all about those words2, and this pair did well. In fact, they gave the story an interesting reshape. Adding a caretaker of the Russell property, Jessie (Diane Cilento), to the mix. As the moral center within that stagecoach, along with her sass and wit. Though, at the expense of the most interesting female character of the novel3, I’m afraid.
The support cast of western vet Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Rush, Val Avery, and scene-stealer Frank Silvera, were none too shabby, either. Yet, along with Jessie, the trio that included the always steady Martin Balsam as Russell’s lone compadre Mendez, Richard Boone’s Grimes (who learns John Russell’s ruthlessness only too well and too late), along with Frederic March’s seedy, racist turn as the corrupt Indian Agent, Dr. Favor, triangulated the protagonist for the better. No matter what you say about Newman’s method acting, he’s really great as the title character.
Reticent, with his own code — again, a well-worn staple of the western — but who could indeed “cut it” when needed.
“Lady, up there in those mountains there is a whole people who’ve lost everything. They don’t have a place left to spread their blankets. They’ve been insulted, diseased, made drunk and foolish. Now, you call the men who did that Christians, and you trust them. I know them as white men, and I don’t.”
Opening upon Newman’s famous set of blues, displaying an almost inhuman patience, dressed as an Apache, ethnicity clearly the issue from the start in Hombre. White, Mexican, and Apache, and in that order of importance. A part of our history that echos to this day, sadly. Martin Ritt’s film was in keeping with Elmore Leonard’s accomplished novel that played as an excellent and engaging exemplum. Western or not. Using its drama and inequality to fuel the action, the film had something to say about the way it is. Typical of the 60s, I daresay. A plus in other words.
Again citing Colin’s exceptional interpretation of the film spells out why I hold it and this film in high regard:
“Here we have a movie that avoids the outright nihilism of the Euro western, retains the structure and moral complexity of the best 50s efforts, and looks forward to the bleak honesty of revisionism. In short, it becomes a kind of philosophical meditation on social responsibility.”
It’s been a year ago this week when we lost Elmore Leonard. Many have ranked his film adaptations in that time, with crime tales like Out of Sight, Get Shorty gathering the most likes. Hombre too often getting shortchanged, in my opinion, which is an out-and-out shame. For it’s right up there with the best of ’em, I reckon.
Parallel Post Series
- The Bourne Identity
- Empire of the Sun
- The Name of the Rose
- I Am Legend
- The Right Stuff
- – 2013 posts
- – 2012 posts
- – 2011 posts
- – 2010 posts
- 3:10 to Yuma was just a short story by Mr. Leonard. Used as the basis for the original 92 minute film, the author famously criticized it as a tad too long for his tastes. ↩
- The latter is Elmore’s. ↩
- John Ford’s famed The Searchers attempted to speak of the white settlers taken and held by tribal peoples during this period. Some adopted by their captors, freed women suffered when returned to their previous existence. With enormous disdain in some cases by their families for the experience. ↩