My dad and I watched Martin Ritt’s Hombre the other night. A 1974 countercultural western starring Paul Newman as the hombre in question, I noticed that it works fascinatingly as documentation of how whiteness is centered even in attempts to decenter whiteness.
Let me explain. Hombre is the story of John Russell (Newman), a white man raised by the Apache who is entirely ingrained in Apache culture. He is a quiet character, at odds with the loud and outwardly aggressive white cowboys encountered throughout the movie. He shows subtle-but-great disdain for white culture, and especially for white treatment of native people. When Russell’s father passes, however, he comes to inherit a boarding house. Russell must then return to the white world to take care of his family’s affairs.
This movie is clearly in sympathy with Apache people. For that it is unique in the Hollywood Western tradition. But apparently it can only do so by putting a white man in the lead. Newman’s character others his whiteness by rejecting mainstream white culture, to be sure. But his whiteness is still pronounced throughout the film—he is seen as a champion of the Apache and a bridge to white understanding of the Apache plight. That suggests that the only way for a race to be redeemed is through a white man’s influence.
This Apache redemption is a good message in concept, a great revision of the standard Hollywood cowboy flick. But one key flaw keeps it from being fully convincing: Where the hell are the Apache people in this movie?
Only two Native American characters get involved in the story. They appear for only a short while, as Russell’s nondescript sidekicks at the beginning. One of the first scenes finds these two in a bar, drinking silently. A couple white cowboys enter and begin to antagonist them. The men stoically ignore the men. Then the men become physically disruptive. The Apache duo just put up with it, not showing any emotion that might stoke the white cowboy’s racist rage. The scene at last ends when Russell brings the white men down to size himself—he beats one in the head with the butt of his gun and coerces them into paying their bar tab. A good gesture, right? Only, as it shows that Newman (and the audience by extension) should sympathize with the Apache people, it simultaneously shows that these Apache men seem to have no agency of their own. Instead of either Native American man finally intervening, it is the white protagonist who must save them.
This scene demonstrates Native American men as props even in their own redemption. Hombre is clearly pro-Apache and anti-status quo whiteness. Yet with Paul Newman at the helm, instead of an Apache actor playing an Apache character, it seems that white men still win in the end. It is simply an “othered” whiteness which now wins out over traditional whiteness. Hombre subverts the implicit promotion of the American dream of standard western films, sure, but it is still Russell’s whiteness that is being celebrated for its humanitarian sympathy toward Apache people.
I liked this movie despite its problematic nature. It had a Kurosawa-like structure—slow to build but extremely satisfying in payoff, with gorgeous cinematography and intriguing character dynamics. Thus it’s even more of a shame that Hombre still upholds whiteness as supreme. Just a different kind of whiteness.
One can see this praise for othered whiteness carried on in a number of films and TV shows through to the 90s and beyond—On Deadly Ground, The X-Files, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, etc. It is the well-intended parallel to the Tarzan myth. Whereas Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs to show that a white man is superior in any environment, even one so wildly exotic as an African jungle, these narratives show that a white man is capable of redeeming, saving, or else mastering a given non-white culture or practice. It affirms white supremacy, just weirdly in defense and support for another race, culture or ethnicity.