There was a time when Westerns ruled the movie theatres. John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were all larger than life cowboy stars and the sight of a wagon train coming over a mountain pass was pretty much a guarantee of a healthy box office. Then times changed. The western went urban as big city cop dramas squeezed cowboy stories off the big screen. This season, however, after an absence of several years two new westerns are slated to gauge audience interest in good old fashioned horse opera.
The first of the two, 3:10 to Yuma, is a star driven remake of a 1957 Glenn Ford oater (look for the awkwardly titled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in late September). The original is a classic of suspense, a tension filled battle of wills between two men, one bad to the bone, the other righteous but desperate. I’m happy to say that the new version takes only slight liberties with the story such as upping the violence and even changing the ending, but maintains the spiritual core of the first.
Christian Bale, hot off his star turn in Rescue Dawn, is Arizona rancher Dan Evans. He’s a Civil War vet, but an injury sustained in battle and bad luck has made it nearly impossible for him to make a living from his land. He’s in debt and about to have his land repossessed by a greedy landowner not above using violence and intimidation to get Dan and his family off their land. Dan feels like a failure, and worse yet, his kids and wife seem to agree in that assessment.
The answer to Dan’s problems, both financial and self esteem wise comes in a strange package. Ben Wade is the outlaw’s outlaw. He’s a gunfighter and gang leader responsible for a trail of lawlessness and bloodshed. When he is separated from his mob and captured, Dan, who was once the best shot in his platoon sees an opportunity to make some money and rehabilitate his reputation with his family. For $200 Dan joins the posse of lawmen charged with the dangerous job of escorting Wade to the 3:10 to Yuma prison train.
The passage is dangerous, made even more so by Wade’s gang, led by the psychotically loyal henchman Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). These guys delight in ultra-violence and are desperate to have their leader back. The journey, peppered with violence, vengeance and tension isn’t merely about the physical, however. This is a spiritual journey for both men, a chance for each of them to prove what they are made of; to dig deep and reveal their true natures.
Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) has a lot on his plate with this remake. The original is a well loved classic (although few people under 40 have probably seen it) with a riveting central performance by Glenn Ford in a rare bad guy role. To his credit (and the benefit of the movie) Mangold cast the major characters with actors known for making roles their own, and this is one of the strengths of the film.
Bale brings just the right amount of vulnerability to Evans, while Crowe digs in to create a bad guy, rotten to the core, who begins to doubt his evil nature. It’s the only way of life he knows, but given a glimpse of decency he doesn’t exactly change his ways, as much as simply acknowledge that under his tough exterior there is a beating heart. It’s like he says after brutally dispatching a man who insulted his mother. “Even bad men love their mamas…”
Also notable are Peter Fonda as an old time Pinkerton cop and Hollywood’s psycho du jour Ben Foster, who takes the standard role of the rancorous goon and injects it with a fierceness that makes him standout in a movie of great performances.
Like Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven, 3:10 to Yuma is a great Western cow opera about men looking inside themselves to discover the true essence of their lives. These two polar opposite men find a meeting place in the existential grey area between redemption and damnation. 3:10 to Yuma is a handsome remake and a smart enough movie to allow for a healthy dollop of existential angst amid the horse and gun play. If all the new westerns were all this good, maybe they will make a comeback.