Hombre is a movie about John Russell (Paul Newman), a white man who was kidnapped as a child and raised as an Apache, who was eventually rescued and educated among white people, but who then returned to live among the Apaches. There is also an indication that he had spent time living as a Mexican, but there is no emphasis placed on that, mostly just the fact that he was a white man personally steeped in Apache culture. Because he has spent time among three different cultures, he has three names, one for each.
When the movie starts, he finds out that he has inherited a boardinghouse in the town of Sweetmary from “Old Man” Russell, his adoptive father. He looks over the boardinghouse, which is run by Jessie (Diane Cilento). She shows him the books and tells him he can make a regular income off the place without lifting a finger. But he is not impressed. He says he has an offer on the place for a herd of horses in Contention, and he has decided to take it. Jessie is crestfallen, for she really liked managing the boardinghouse.
She has been sleeping with Sheriff Frank Braden (Cameron Mitchell), so she goes over to his office and tells him she no longer has a job, hoping he will marry her. He doesn’t want to get married, however, so she decides to leave town and try to make her way somewhere else.
And so it is that she ends up on a stagecoach with Russell, who is on his way to Contention, along with a variety of characters, one of whom is Dr. Favor (Frederic March), the Indian agent at San Carlos, and his wife (Barbara Rush). Along the way, the stage is held up, and one of the passengers, Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone), turns out to be the ringleader of the bandits. We then find out that Dr. Favor has been embezzling funds by starving the Indians, and the bandits steal the money he has with him. But things get complicated when Russell kills a couple of them, getting back the money, which he intends to return to the Indians. One of the bandits he kills is Sheriff Braden, who admits to Jessie when asked what he is doing there, “Going bad, Honey.” No wonder he refused to marry her, if he was planning on being a part of this.
The rest of the movie is a struggle between the two groups of people, the bandits and the passengers. Russell has trouble understanding why white people persist in helping other white people, even though they don’t deserve it. The way he sees it, it makes more sense to kill them and be done with it. He especially dislikes Mrs. Favor because she expressed contempt for the Indians, and because she was presumably party to her husband’s embezzlement. During the final standoff, Grimes has Mrs. Favor tied out in the hot sun with no water, saying that she will stay there either until she dies or someone brings him the money. Russell is willing to just let her die, but Jessie is determined to save her. Russell knows Jessie will be killed if she tries to bring Grimes the money in exchange for Mrs. Favor’s release, and since he likes Jessie, there is nothing for him to do but try to save Mrs. Favor himself. In the end, Russell kills Grimes and mortally wounds a Mexican bandit. Russell is also killed, though he did succeed in saving Mrs. Favor, which was white of him. As a result, when the dying Mexican asks what the name was of the man that shot him, he is told the man’s name was “John Russell” rather than his Indian or Mexican name.
Back when the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) had discussion boards for each movie, the question was posed, “Was Mrs. Favor in on it?” to which many people answered in the affirmative. It certainly is an interpretation that makes sense of some of the peculiar things that happen in this movie. From what we can gather, Dr. Favor has been embezzling for years. For some reason, he suddenly decides to take the money and run. Perhaps he found out that the federal government was sending someone to San Carlos to do an audit, and he figured he would get out before the embezzlement was discovered. So, using the excuse the he and Mrs. Favor were going to Bisbee for a couple of days to settle some affairs, they go into town to take the stagecoach, intending to go to Mexico.
And yet, when they get to town, the heist is all set up. Not only do the bandits know that Dr. Favor has been stealing from the Indians, they also know that he has chosen just this moment to make off with the money, and that he and his wife intend to take the stage. Furthermore, because most of these bandits were from out of town, they had to know about Dr. Favor’s intention to abscond well in advance, so they could ride into the area and get things ready, which includes Grimes also getting on the stagecoach. Presumably, they had inside information. And a likely source would be Mrs. Favor. She could have been having an affair with Grimes, and during some pillow talk, told him about the money and exactly when she and her husband would be leaving.
After the robbery takes place, Grimes says to Mrs. Favor, “I figured you’d ride along with us a way.” And Mrs. Favor says, “I’d better not.” I’d better not? That is not what an attractive woman says when she is about to be abducted by a bunch of desperadoes that, she should have every reason to fear, will gang rape her and leave her for dead in the desert. What we would expect her to do is beg for mercy.
By way of contrast, consider the movie Niagara (1953). Marilyn Monroe is married to Joseph Cotten, who is very jealous and possessive. One night some young adults that are staying at the same hotel are having an outdoor party. Marilyn asks a young man to play her favorite record for her. He does, and then he asks her to dance. She looks over at her hotel room and sees her husband watching her through the window. She turns back to the young man and says, “I’d better not.”
Now, that is where that line makes sense, when a woman is worried about making her husband jealous. What would explain this is that Mrs. Favor and Grimes planned this robbery, and they agreed that she would rendezvous with him later in Mexico. This sudden change in plans worries her, for it might make her husband suspicious, especially since he has had time to wonder, as we do, just how the bandits knew so much about his plans.
Toward the end of the movie, the passengers, who are trying to make their way back to town by walking, decide to hide in an abandoned shack near a mine until nighttime. It is located on top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill is a smaller shack, which the bandits, with Mrs. Favor as their hostage, use as their base of operations when they discover where the passengers are hiding. Grimes goes up the hill to try to make a deal, trading the woman for the money, but Russell rejects the offer. As Grimes tries to get back down the hill, Russell puts three slugs in him. When Grimes collapses in the doorway of the small shack, Mrs. Favor drags him inside, saving him from being shot any further. This would suggest that she cares about Grimes, confirming the theory that they were having an affair.
On the other hand, this could be an instance of the Stockholm syndrome. In fact, just prior to Grimes’ deciding to ascend the hill and try to make the deal, he asks her if she wants to send her husband a message, and she says, “Tell him I’m being well looked after,” which is characteristic: as a victim, she might be grateful that she has not been raped, thereby bonding with her captor. Furthermore, since they are alone in that scene, we would expect some kind of communication between them making it explicit that they were in cahoots, if indeed they were, but nothing of that sort is forthcoming.
At least, movie logic would require that. Now, in real life, just because Grimes and Mrs. Favor were having an affair and had conspired against her husband, that would not mean that they would say something about it whenever they were alone. But even though real-life logic would not require it, movie logic would, and this is, after all, a movie.
Let us further undermine the case against Mrs. Favor. A running theme through the movie is the irrational way white people, from Russell’s Apache perspective, will stick together and protect one another even after acts of betrayal. That Mrs. Favor would drag Grimes to safety would be just one more instance of this. That he would subsequently tie her up in the hot sun without water would simply underscore Russell’s belief that white people are foolish to be so trusting and forgiving of one another.
Finally, since the sheriff was also in on the job, he might, as a law-enforcement officer, have gotten wind of Favor’s treatment of the Indians, and might have also found out through someone connected to the reservation that Dr. Favor seemed awfully anxious to make that so-called trip to Bisbee.
In short, while there is a strong circumstantial case that can be made that Mrs. Favor was in on it, it is equally possible to make the case that she is innocent, at least in the sense that she did not betray her husband.
In any event, as noted above, Russell ends up in a shootout with the bandits, in which he and they are killed, leaving only the passengers still alive. Actually, there is one more bandit, who went behind the hill to cut off their retreat, but we figure the passengers will not have any trouble with him, outnumbering him as they do.
While we are figuring about what will happen after the movie has ended, allow me to suggest a subsequent scene: Three days later, the man that bought the boardinghouse shows up in Sweetmary. “Where is the woman who runs the place,” he asks. “Did she quit?”
After all, there is nothing surprising about the fact that someone might inherit a business, but immediately sell it because he didn’t want to bother with it. But you have to figure that the person who bought the business wanted to keep it as an income-producing asset. Therefore, it makes no sense that Jessie would assume that she no longer had a job running the boardinghouse until she had a chance to talk to the man who bought the place.
So, what with my wondering if Mrs. Favor was in cahoots with Cicero Grimes, and wondering why Jessie wouldn’t wait to see if the new owner of the boardinghouse would want to keep her on as the manager, I decided to read the novel, written by Elmore Leonard, to see if that would shed any light on the subject.
If you told me that the novel was written in the first person, I would have assumed that Jessie would be the narrator. There are only two scenes in the movie she is not in. The first is when Billy Lee tells John Russell that the stage line is closing down and will no longer need horses, which Russell and a couple of fellow Indians were regularly supplying. The second is when Russell goes to Delgado’s to talk to Mendez (Martin Balsam) about the boardinghouse, a conversation that gets interrupted when a couple of white men enter the bar and start insulting Russell’s two Indian companions. Russell bashes one of the white men in the mouth with the butt of his rifle just as the man was putting a whiskey glass to his lips. But Mendez, a resident of the boardinghouse, could have told Jessie about that. On the other hand, there are several scenes with Jessie in which others in the story are not present. She is the one that ties all the pieces of the story together.
Much to my surprise, then, I found that there is no such character as Jessie in the novel. Needless to say, that means that the question as to why Jessie didn’t wait to talk to the new owner never comes up in the novel. In fact, it is not even a boardinghouse that Russell inherits, but just the house his adoptive father lived in. But even more striking is Jessie’s absence from the novel throughout. We are used to movies eliminating characters in a novel to keep thing simple, but here is a case where the novel seems empty and flat without a character that exists only in the movie. She is the one that makes this movie so much fun to watch, especially the way she is wont to make brutally frank comments about sex.
Also, I cannot help but mention that while the John Russell of the movie is a man with a ready wit, Apache style, of course, much of which comes out through his repartee with Jessie, the novel is excessive in depicting Russell as the strong, silent type, practically making him a zombie. In criticizing the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain made several criticisms, saying that Cooper had violated most of the rules of romantic fiction. One of those rules requires “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.” It is also a detail that seems to have been overlooked by Elmore Leonard as well. Interestingly enough, the Natty Bumppo of the Leatherstocking Tales is a white man raised by the Indians just as John Russell was in this novel. Now, I know that the old movies never represented Indians as being loquacious, but I always figured that was because their English was limited. Hence, the stereotypical Indian who merely says, “Ugh.” But it seems that Cooper and Leonard both regard Indians as inherently laconic. In any event, Russell and Jessie are not the only ones that made the movie better than the novel in this regard. Several other characters in this movie are given some good lines were not in the novel.
We are also used to movies changing the names of characters in a book for seemingly no good reason, but this movie goes one step further. It turns out that the Cicero Grimes character in the novel goes by the name of Frank Braden, the name of the sheriff in the movie. In what follows, the name “Frank Braden” will be understood to refer to the same character as Cicero Grimes in the movie, not the sheriff in the movie.
Anyway, at first I thought the novel would support the idea that Mrs. Favor and Frank Braden had been having an affair. The narrator, a young kid named Carl Allen, describes a scene on the coach:
Frank Braden had eased lower in the seat and his head was very close to Mrs. Favor’s. He said something to her, a low murmur. She laughed, not out loud, almost to herself, but you could hear it. Her head moved to his and she said one word or maybe a couple. There faces were close together for a long time, maybe even touching, and yet her husband was right there. Figure that one out.
And after the holdup, when Braden tells Mrs. Favor she is going to have to come with him, she makes the same odd remark:
Braden brought the horse over to her and said, “I thought you’d come along with us a ways,” sounding nice about it.
And just as nice, she said, “I’d better not,” as if they were discussing it and she had a choice.
But even so, the theory falls apart. Lamarr Dean, the guy that got the whiskey glass smashed into his mouth, used to work for the man that delivered beef to Dr. Favor, and that was how he knew that Favor was claiming more beef was delivered than actually was, and then charging the government to get “reimbursed.” Regarding Favor’s attempt to take the money he had embezzled and head for Mexico, Dean says, “I’ve seen this coming for two, three months.”
After Dean describes how Dr. Favor was cheating the government, Mrs. Favor says she recognizes Dean, but not Braden. Dean replies, “No, Frank wasn’t anywhere near. He was still in Yuma then.” So, Braden and Mrs. Favor could not have been having an affair.
And that might seem like the end of it. We could just assume that the authors of the screenplay left out Dean’s remarks about how he was the one who figured out that Favor had been embezzling a lot of money and would try to leave with it soon, and that Braden had been in Yuma, presumably meaning the prison there. Dean does make reference in the movie to the way Dr. Favor cheated and starved the Indians, but it is not clear how he knows that, or if he is the ultimate source of that information.
But as if to prove that I have spent more time thinking about this than is good for me, it then occurred to me, upon finishing the novel, that these omissions in the movie were no mere oversight, but the result of a deliberate attempt to make us wonder if Mrs. Favor was in on it. Dean’s explanation of how he knew what Favor was up to, along with the remark that Braden had been in Yuma, would have added only about two minutes to the length of the movie, not a sufficient reason for leaving it out. One might justifiably conclude that the scriptwriters wanted to create the suspicion that Mrs. Favor betrayed her husband, only to be betrayed in turn by Grimes, the man she loved and trusted.
While that is debatable, there is no question but that the scriptwriters did the right thing by creating Jessie for this movie, even if they did leave us wondering why she didn’t stick around to talk to the new owner to see if she still had a job.