Martin Ritt’s Hombre (1967) brings to a close what could be called Paul Newman’s “H-picture” days—The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Harper (1966), Hombre—and sometimes gets overlooked because it came out the same year as the more iconic Cool Hand Luke. It probably doesn’t help that the testosterone-soaked Hombre is also a kind of last-gasp traditional Western that makes tentative stabs at modernity that feel kind of off kilter today. The attempts at more adult—or at least frank—dialogue came a year too soon to benefit from the advent of the MPAA ratings system and seem rather quaint and certainly tepid. The tragic climax feels like a typical 1960s “feel bad” embellishment (complete with fake irony) meant to prove to the viewer that this is important fare—just in case they missed the significance of the movie’s racial tolerance message. With Martin Ritt at the helm, that wasn’t likely anyway.
The truth of the matter is that Hombre is a pretty good little Western with every genre trope firmly in place, an unusually impressive cast and around 15 to 20 minutes more footage than it needs. In essence, it’s Paul Newman as the white man who’s a social outcast because he was raised by Indians, but whose pragmatism and skills make him the only person on a stagecoach capable of dealing with the situation when robbery (you’ll have no trouble spotting the snake in their midst) and kidnapping occur. As horse-opera entertainment, it’s not bad. As an important adult Western, really the more playful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) seems a lot more sincere.