This movie is a Western, but with a difference which made it stand out markedly in 1967. It has a considerable amount of social commentary on the state of civilization, specifically the society of the United States. That commentary may be set in the American West more than a hundred years ago, but it was incisive and relevant almost 40 years ago and still is today.
Hombre opens picturing John Russell (Paul Newman) with very blue eyes dressed in Apache garb. He and several other Apache braves are watching a herd of horses led by an impressive black stallion (not that Black Stallion). The stallion approaches a water hole. Judging it safe, he returns to his herd and leads them to the water hole. When they are all at the hole the Apaches close a corral gate capturing the horses. At the same time that this happens Billy Blake (Peter Lazer) carries a message to Russell from the operator of the stage line. The line is ceasing operation and therefore won’t need more horses. He also asks Russell to come in for a talk.
Russell and two Apache friends arrive at Delgado’s station so John can speak with Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam). Mendez tells him that the elder Russell who had befriended him when he was a child and given him his name, has died leaving him a watch and a rooming house in town. Mendez encourages Russell to go to town and “put yourself on the winning side for a change.”
The scene shifts to town where Jessie (Diane Cilento) does the housekeeping at the rooming house. She is moving Frank Braden (Cameron Mitchell), her boyfriend, out of her bedroom and back into his own room, in which he hasn’t spent much time over the last year. Also rooming there are Billy Blake and his young wife Doris (Margaret Blye), who are not getting along as well as they might have when first married. When Billy comes to breakfast, Jessie mentions the thinness of the walls in the house. Mendez enters and tells Jessie about the new owner John Russell, who he says eats with his fingers. Jessie replies that she’ll have him eating out of her hand. When Russell arrives and talks about the house with Jessie, he tells her he is going to sell it.
Meanwhile, at the town’s stage station, Dr. Alex Favor (Fredric March) and his wife Audra (Barbara Rush) convince Mendez and Billy to outfit a stage. In addition to the Favors, both Billy and Doris, as well as Jessie, Russell and a soldier are also interested in leaving town on the stage. At the last minute another traveler arrives: Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone). Grimes first attempts to intimidate Russell into giving up his seat, but switches to the soldier. After Grimes challenges him to a shootout in the street, the soldier gives up his ticket.
Once on the journey, Dr. Favor reveals that he has been the Indian agent on the Apache reservation. Russell tells them that he has lived on the reservation. The Favors request Mendez to have Russell not ride inside the stage with them. He rides up top with Mendez the driver. At Delgado’s station Favor discovers that three men had ridden through earlier that day. Thinking that a bad sign he requests Mendez to take a route other than the ordinary one, to avoid robbery.
The journey takes an old and little used route which passes through an abandoned mining area. Once past the old mining operation, and far from any settlement they are met by armed robbers, who turn out to be in league with Grimes. Russell confronts two of the robbers and gets the stolen money back, but the traveling company no longer has horses nor much water. Russell begins the trek back to Delgado’s. The other travelers are now dependent on him with most of the outlaws still at large, looking for the money and holding Mrs. Favor as a hostage.
That sets the scene for the most interesting parts of the movie, but there was much left out of that description for brevity’s sake. This movie is packed with characterization and subtlety, from the actions of the “everyday people” to those of the political class represented by the Favors, to the outlaws. Alex Favor may be more reprehensible as he uses the belief systems of people to hoodwink them (a sign of the political class), than Grimes is when he plainly robs them. John Russell may appear to be a simple loner, but he is more complex. He attempts to get his fellow travelers to see the world as it is, rather than how they believe it to be; in his struggle to bring them all back to safety. There are many themes at work in this movie and the way in which they are woven is complex. The performances and the direction by Martin Ritt are excellent. If you like Westerns, give Hombre a try.