James Mangold's "3:10 to Yuma" restores the wounded heart of the Western and rescues it from the morass of pointless violence. The Western in its glory days was often a morality play, a story about humanist values penetrating the lawless anarchy of the frontier. It still follows that tradition in films like Eastwood's "Unforgiven," but the audience's appetite for morality plays and Westerns seems to be fading. Here the quality of the acting, and the thought behind the film, make it seem like a vanguard of something new, even though it's a remake of a good movie 50 years old.
The plot is so easily told that Elmore Leonard originally wrote it as a short story. A man named Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who lost a leg in the Civil War, has come to the Arizona territory to try his luck at ranching. It's going badly, made worse by a neighboring bully who wants to force him off his land. The territory still fears Indian raids, and just as much the lawless gang led by Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), which sticks up stagecoaches, robs banks, casually murders people and outguns any opposition. Through a series of developments that seem almost dictated by fate, Dan Evans finds himself as part of a posse sworn in to escort Wade, captured and handcuffed, to the nearby town of Contention, where the 3:10 p.m. train has a cell in its mail car that will transport Wade to the prison in Yuma and a certain death sentence.
Both Dan and Ben have elements in their characters that come under test in this adventure. Dan fears he has lost the confidence of wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and teenage son Will (Logan Lerman), who doubt he can make the ranch work. Still less does Alice see why her transplanted Eastern husband should risk his life as a volunteer. The son Will, who has practically memorized dime novels about Ben Wade, idealizes the outlaw, and when Dan realizes the boy has followed the posse, he is not pleased. Wade intuits, however, that the boy is following him, and not his father.
That's an insight into Wade. He plays his persona like a performance. He draws, reads, philosophizes, is incomparably smarter than the scum in his gang. Having spent untold time living on the run with them, he may actually find it refreshing to spend time with Dan, even as his captive. Eventually the two men end up in a room in the Contention hotel, overlooking the street, in earshot of the train whistle, surrounded outside by armed men who want to rescue Ben or kill him.
These general outlines also describe the 1957 version of "3:10 to Yuma," directed by Delmer Daves, starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in the roles of the rancher and the outlaw. The movie, with its railroad timetable, followed the slowly advancing clock in "High Noon" (1952) and was compared to it; when I saw it in 35mm at Telluride in the 1980s, I thought it was better than "High Noon," not least because of the personality shifts it involves.
Mangold's version is better still than the 1957 original, because it has better actors with more thought behind their dialogue. Christian Bale plays not simply a noble hero, but a man who has avoided such risks as he now takes and is almost at a loss to explain why he is bringing a killer to justice, except that having been mistreated and feeling unable to provide for his family, he is fed up and here he takes his stand. Crowe, however, plays not merely a merciless killer, although he is that, too, but a man also capable of surprising himself. He is too intelligent to have only one standard behavior which must fit all situations, and is perhaps bored of having that expected of him.
Westerns used to be the showcases of great character actors, of whom I was lucky enough to meet Dub Taylor, Jack Elam, Chill Wills, Ben Johnson and, when she wasn't doing a million other things, Shelley Winters. "3:10 to Yuma" has two roles that need a special character flavor and fills them perfectly. Peter Fonda plays McElroy, a professional bounty hunter who would rather claim the price on Ben Wade's head than let the government execute him for free. And Ben Foster plays Charlie Prince, the second-in-command of Wade's gang, who seems half in love with Wade, or maybe Charlie's half-aware that's he's all in love. Wade would know which, and wouldn't care, except as material for his study of human nature.
Locked in the hotel room, surrounded by death for one or the other, the two men begin to talk. Without revealing anything of the plot, let me speculate that each senses he has found the first man he has met in years who is his equal in conversation. Crowe and Bale play this dialogue so precisely that it never reveals itself for what it really is, a testing of mutual insight. One trial of a great actor is the ability to let dialogue do its work invisibly, something you can also see in next week's "In the Valley of Elah" with Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron. Too many actors are like the guy who laughs at his own joke and then tells it to you again.
James Mangold first came into view with an extraordinary movie named "Heavy" (1995). His "Walk the Line" (2005) won an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon. To remake "3:10 to Yuma" seems an odd choice after such other modern films as "Girl, Interrupted," but the movie itself proves he had a good reason for choosing it. In hard times, Americans have often turned to the Western to reset their compasses. In very hard times, it takes a very good Western. Attend well to Ben Wade's last words in this movie, and who he says them to, and why.
Elmore Leonard is one of those long lasting literature legends. He's eighty-five years old, still kickin' and writing stories. I'm a little bit ashamed to admit I had never read him before. But it happened a lot this year, me admitting my complete ignorance about a writer in particular. So I picked up THREE-TEN TO YUMA AND OTHER STORIES at the bookstore on the recommendation of my friend and writer of THE BASTARD HAND Heath Lowrance. He told me Leonard's crime stories were good, but that his Westerns were quite something. Elmore Leonard's books also happen to be laughably cheap (at least in my bookstore), so I made my choice and went for a title I recognized. THREE-TEN TO YUMA has been adapted for film twice now. There's a good reason for that. It's very good. Is that good enough of a reason?
Like I usually do when I review a short story collection, I'll concentrate on the stories that marked me the most. CAVALRY BOOTS, the opener, isn't your typical tough-guys-talking-shit-in-a-saloon type of Western. It literally blew me away. It's a Western sure, but it's also a war story and a story about the nature of courage. It's loaded and layered with meaning, yet the prose is very simple and straightforward. It's the story of a battle in between the U.S Cavalry and the Mimbreno Apaches in Arizona and of Bud Nagle, an honest and simple-minded soldier with a very important task. Bud's action are sure dictated by his "simple" state of mind, but in the end, it's his action that stays. Through very simple, straightforward and entertaining storytelling, Leonard crafted a fine piece of thoughtful fiction.
The title story, THREE-TEN TO YUMA is a little more conventional, but very interesting still. It's been the basis for two films despite it's diminutive size (about twenty-five pages in a mass market paperback, so maybe what, eighteen pages) so there is a lot of mood and time-specific charm to it. It's basically a one-on-one showdown in between a criminal and his jailer, who is supposed to put him in the 3:10 PM train to Yuma prison (hence the title). Well, not really. But no spoilers here. It's a story that exposes the ambiguous nature of law back then, versus the principles of right and wrong. It's about trust and how well can you really know a person. Elmore Leonard's character have all a strangely moral side (sometimes self-righteous, but still somewhat moral), and the fact they're living in such a dark and uncertain time makes them shine even brighter.
CAVALRY BOOTS, THREE-TEN TO YUMA and THE CAPTIVES were the three stars of this story collection. They were loaded in, each in their own way and kept me reading feverishly. Other stories like THE KID, I found a little less interesting. Some could have been written using a contemporary setting and it could' have worked. They're decent stories (none of the seven stories were actually bad), but they don't grasp the era like the three stars do. I mean, what's the point of writing a Western if you don't want to address something about that era. Anyway, THREE-TEN TO YUMA AND OTHER STORIES was a great, quick read and Elmore Leonard's style is enjoyable anywhere, from the comfort of your home to the discomfort of plastic bus seat, knocking on your ass. The perfect companion for off-road reading.