The Godfather: Peter Corris on Martin Ritt’s Hombre
Recently I bought, cheaply, the DVD of one of my favourite Western films, Martin Ritt’s Hombre (1967). It stars Paul Newman at his most handsome, Frederic March suitably crabbed, Diane Cilento doing very well as a tough woman of the West, and Richard Boone at his sinister best.
I watched it for probably the third time with as much enjoyment as previously. The film tells the story of a group making an unscheduled trip in a coach, each with his or her own story. Newman (John Russell) has lived much of his life with an Apache band and has the appropriate skills; March (Alex Favor) is the agent for the San Carlos Apache reservation who is absconding with money derived from defrauding the government and denying the Apaches their food allowance; Cilento (Jessie) ran the boarding house Russell inherited from his adoptive father which Russell has sold. Boone (Cicero Grimes) reveals himself to be the leader of a hold-up gang bent on stealing Favor’s ill-gotten gains. Other significant characters are Henry Mendez, the Mexican driver of the coach, Favor’s wife, and Billy Lee Blake and his wife – a young couple not getting along.
A major theme is the prejudice Russell suffers as a result of his association and sympathy with the Apaches. Another is the sexual tension between Grimes and the women and the suppressed attraction between Russell and Jessie. Things end badly. Averse to revealing the plots of films for those who haven’t seen them I will provide no more details.
I knew that the film was based on a short novel by Elmore Leonard and realised that I’d never read it. I decided to do so and discover what differences existed between book and film. They were considerable: characters in the book were modified; Jessie and Cicero Grimes were inventions by the well-credentialled screenwriters Irving Ravech and Harriet Frank Jr. In the book the story is narrated by a character approximating Billy Lee; the film is objectively portrayed, but many of the scenes are directly transposed from book to film with great effect.
A few of the seminal exchanges in the film were original to the script. At one point Mendez encourages Russell to abandon his Apache role and join ‘the winning side’. Newman, as Russell, pauses and says impassively, ‘Is that where you are?’
Later, in the coach, when Favor’s wife disparages Indians for eating dogs, Russell rouses himself from indifference to her other racist remarks and says that, if she were starving as the people on the reservation were, ‘You’d eat it. You’d fight over the bones.’
But much of the dialogue in the film came directly from the book, a tribute to Elmore Leonard’s skill and the screenwriters’ judgement. For example, straight from the book came this exchange in the film:
Favor: You’ll learn something about white people. They stick together.
Russell: They better.
This is the sort of clipped, hard-boiled dialogue that distinguished Leonard’s later, highly successful crime novels.
On balance I judge the film to be better than the book. Russell is wholly white in the film, not part-Mexican as in the book. This sharpens the unfairness of the prejudice against him. The first-person narrative in the book is slightly awkward and, oddly, it throws away the ending short of the denouement.
Scriptwriters Ravech and Frank were a married couple who wrote many outstanding films, including Hud, Home From the Hill and Norma Rae. They were nominated for and won many awards, but no Oscars. They should have done.