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. When the movie starts, he finds out that he has inherited a boardinghouse 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 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. The rest of the movie is a struggle between the two groups of people, the bandits and the passengers, until Russell ends up losing his life rescuing Mrs. Favor. The irony is that Russell dislikes Mrs. Favor because she expressed contempt for the Indians, and because she was party to her husband’s embezzlement.
Some people argue that Mrs. Favor was in on the holdup. 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, but 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. 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 taking the stage.
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 has every reason to fear, will gang rape her and leave her for dead in the desert. What we would expect her to do is scream.
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 who 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.
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 to a post in the hot sun without water would simply underscore Russell’s attitude 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, 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, a man shows up in town, asking to see the boardinghouse he just bought. “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 assume 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 just bought it.