3:10 To Yuma
50 years ago, Hollywood turned this Elmore Leonard short story into a brisk western starring Glenn Ford as a charming felon and Van Heflin as the beleaguered rancher who’s hired to put Ford’s captured outlaw on a train to prison. In 92 crisply-paced minutes, veteran director Delmer Davies, (Destination Tokyo, Broken Arrow) gave Heflin the opportunity to reinvent the stolid farmer he’d played to perfection 4 years earlier in Shane while providing Ford the chance to play against type as a self-assured villain. The film was financially successful and garnered a nomination as the best American movie of the year at the British Academy Film Awards. Now director Robert Mangold follows his successful Walk The Line (an over-praised biography of Johnny Cash) with this expensive remake starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. The results fall far short of the original and provide fresh evidence of a troubling tendency in current movie-making to mistake soulless cynicism for ironic observation.
Like the very best pulp fiction writers, Leonard’s well-deserved reputation rests on tersely crafted dialogue rather than complex motivation; how his characters move through his plots, rather than why they do so gives his work its vitality. In the original adaptation of this story, Davies bowed to the convention that westerns were morality plays where good, however ambiguous and beleaguered, overcomes evil. Mangold will have none of that; he’s delivered instead a bloated take on the original which borrows clumsily from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone while mocking the notion that honor and duty, regardless of outcome, are valuable in and of themselves. In doing so, the director wastes a fine performance by Crowe, squeezes a dispiriting one from Bale and leaves the audience wondering just what his film, (nearly a third longer than its predecessor) stands for.
Bale plays Dan Evans, a handicapped Civil War veteran who’s eking out a marginal living raising cattle on parched grazing land in southern Arizona. While rounding up strays from his herd, Evans and his two sons witness the murderous hold-up of a stagecoach by Ben Wade (Crowe) and a gang of cutthroats which includes Charlie Prince, (Ben Foster) Wade’s frighteningly androgynous lieutenant. Completely outnumbered, Evans’ prudent lack of response to the crime causes his sons to suspect him of cowardice. But when Wade is subsequently captured, Evans, desperate for cash to save his ranch, agrees to hire on as part of a small team recruited to deliver the outlaw to Contention Arizona, a border-town railhead where the train will carry Wade to the prison at Yuma.
But delivering Wade to Contention involves a dangerous overnight trip by horseback and this journey - - larded with heavy-handed metaphorical implications - - finds the seductively charming outlaw and his ragtag captors fighting hostile Indians, revenge-seeking relatives of Evans’ earlier victims and each other. Little wonder that the group’s been precipitously thinned by the time it reaches its destination, only to find Evan’s gang at the train station, determined to rescue their leader before he can be shipped off to jail. Despite apparently insurmountable odds, the dogged rancher completes the task for which he’s been paid, earning admiration from his embittered son and enough grudging respect from his captive to warrant the ethically-ambiguous climatic twist which gave the first movie’s ending such impact but which this version inverts in blood-drenched cynicism.
Crowe’s skills as an actor/leading man/star may just exceed those of anyone else working in movies today; not since the peak of Jack Nicholson’s career have audiences been provided with someone who could move with such grace and confidence along the moral spectrum Nietzsche described as the sole purview of The Superman. With sparkling eyes and knowing smile, Crowe’s scripture-quoting killer/bandit charms as he destroys, turning his abhorrent behavior into something temptingly acceptable, as though he possessed the power to turn dross into gold. Fearless, articulate and attractive, Wade represents the siren call of nihilism; if it’s possible, it’s permissible. Crowe stands a good chance of winning an Oscar nomination for this electrifying portrayal, while Ben Foster, as his homicidally-inclined lackey, surely qualifies for the same consideration as best supporting actor.
Alas, the script provides the likeable but far less-gifted Christian Bale no such opportunity; stuck with rationales for his apparent bravery that wander from avoiding financial crisis to garnering respect from his wife and sons to inarticulately-expressed commitment to civic duty, Bale delivers a character balanced precipitously between incompetence and indecision, hectored by his family and underestimated, (for good reason) by those around him. The plot makes it as difficult to fathom his motivations as it is to ascribe any credibility to his actions. Bale’s much more comfortable playing characters who proceed in linear fashion, (Batman Begins, Rescue Dawn, The New World) rather than as ambiguously-tortured ones, (The Machinist, American Psycho); he fails utterly here to approach the appeal of his far more compelling opponent.
This is Mangold’s first western and his efforts beg, borrow and steal much from the gifted Leone, who almost single-handedly rescued this genre in the 60’s and 70’s with his retro-westerns starring Clint Eastwood, (Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly). (Even the distinctively haunting music of those movies, composed by Ennio Morricone, gets ripped off over 3:10’s closing credits.) Leone’s studied fascination with long takes and slow-motion shots of miniscule events, (i.e. rain dripping off the brim of a cowboy’s hat) become leaden in Mangold’s hands. His stagecoach robbery pays too much attention to horse’s hooves and bullet holes and when the plot detours into a nocturnal firefight with Apaches and the decimation of a mining camp little more is added to the proceedings than higher body counts and the additional footage necessary to reach today’s notion of standard feature film running time.
Hollywood westerns enjoyed enormous popularity during the pre-Vietnam portion of the 20th century, morphing from simplistic morality plays between good folks and bad ones in the ‘30’s and 40’s, (Stagecoach) to more nuanced approaches in the 50’s and early ‘60’s that depicted the struggles in forging an ordered society out of an exciting but lawless one, (Once Upon a Time in the West). Guys in black hats vs. those in white ones, (The Virginian, Destry Rides Again) gradually gave way to films examining heroes with decidedly mixed motives, (Red River, The Searchers, The Magnificent Seven) and ultimately focused on the outlaw as anti-hero, (The Gunfighter, The Left-Handed Gun). Throughout this celluloid metamorphosis, ethical judgments also changed; on themes as varied as lynching horse-thieves, (The Ox-Bow Incident) duels as virtual contract killings, (Shane) and the evisceration of Indian treaties, (Little Big Man). Yet audiences were always aware that these films contained the presumption that the moral compass of its characters mattered.
That’s not the case in Mangold’s atavistic re-make; his denouement mocks duty and loyalty among thieves as well as the honorable, suggesting that decency and respect for others are foolish impediments to a life fully lived. As Wade whistles to his cantering horse in the movie’s final frame, Mangold implies that if you’re sufficiently clever and unscrupulous, you deserve the right to get away with anything.
All this carping aside, Mangold has delivered a handsomely mounted if over-stuffed action movie which will surely entertain those interested in simple entertainment. Screenwriters Halstead Welles and Michael Brandt have provided Crowe with shrewdly constructed dialogue and the film’s sun-scorched locations near Santa Fe provide the perfect visual backdrop for the movie’s bleak storyline and the hard cases who populate it. But given the talent involved and the production costs expended, audiences deserve more than yet another exercise in over-the-top violence in pursuit of a casually perverse message. It’s no wonder so many on the political and religious right continue to see Hollywood as the enemy.
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