Western aficionado Jacob Farley comes out of his ten-years-later viewing of 3:10 to Yuma with a newfound respect for James Mangold’s film.
Westerns, as a genre, are not unlike the sport of boxing. Where once they were the respective pinnacles of American cinema and sport, they’ve since been relegated to, if not the dustbins of history, at least the pile of papers set next to the shredder of history, if you’ll forgive me for torturing a metaphor. They’re also similar in that I personally have a strong fondness for each of them stemming from my youth, though nowadays I approach each with a bit more trepidation, since Westerns are, of course, largely built on lies. History wasn’t really like that—“cowboys” were, more often than not, Mexican workers or former slaves, not the lantern-jawed white men we so often imagine, and the famed gunfights were usually more like drunken brawls (when they happened at all).
The period we think of as the “traditional” Wild West lasted for less than half a century, stretching from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the 20th century, but its impact on the American mindset has been second-to-none. It provided America with an idealized view of itself as a land of rugged individualism, of rugged landscapes, of rugged good looks, of just a general sort of ruggedness all around, all while conveniently sweeping aside inconvenient notions of the genocide and enslavement that was a true hallmark of the time. National mythmaking at work, which would be reflected and expounded upon in the earliest eras of film-making, like Edwin Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery (the source of the famous shot of the cowboy firing his revolver directly at the screen, apocryphally causing audiences to jump out of their seats in fear). This cinematic mythologization of the cowboy era has outlasted the actual amount of time that cowboys were a real-life going concern, and has only slowed down in recent decades (but never stopped, and I doubt it ever will—the appeal of dressing up in six-guns and riding horsies around will, I imagine, never fail to appeal to actors and directors).
The 1950s, though, were the true Golden Age of Westerns, including 1957’s 3:10 to Yuma, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. Being pathologically unable to leave well enough alone, Hollywood produced a remake 50 years later—2007’s similarly-titled 3:10 to Yuma, or, as I like to think of it, Batman vs. Superman(‘s Dad). As a brief aside, it’s worth considering for just a moment the popularity of Westerns in the ’50s as it compares to the current popularity of the superhero genre. Consider that for me, will you? Thank you.
I remember being excited for this film when it came out, but I came out of the theater disappointed. I think I was expecting a more dynamic main character in Christian Bale, a more traditional “action hero,” but that’s not what you get in this film. No, this is a smarter movie than that, a movie with more to say. Often when I return to a movie 10 years later, I find that it’s maybe a little worse than I remembered. Sometimes my opinion remains unchanged. Rarely, I find that I like a movie much more than I did the first time—this is one of those times. I think in 2007, I related more with Christian Bale’s large, aggressive son. Now, I think I relate a little more to Christian Bale’s character—not a lot, I’ve never been a broke desperate sharecropper, but a little bit. It’s a very quality film, I think, well-handled on every level.
This particular film stars, of course, Batman himself Christian Bale as Dan Evans, a put-upon farmer in the Arizona territory. He lost his leg in the Civil War and seems to have likewise lost the respect of his family after having put them deep in debt to a land baron. The land is experiencing a long drought and Dan is unable to make his payments on time as a result. So, as you might expect, a goon named Tucker (Kevin Durand, playing yet another grinning psychopath in a long and distinguished career of grinning psychopaths) is sent to burn down Dan’s barn as a “warning.” Dan’s large son (Logan Lerman) thinks his father is a coward who should simply shoot their landlord, while Dan thinks that perhaps premeditated murder shouldn’t be the first recourse in a land dispute. It is left up to the viewer as to which is truly the better option.
Meanwhile, a stagecoach robbery! Charismatic gang leader Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, doing a fantastic job) and his intensely murder-crazy sidekick Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, doing an even more fantastic job) lead a gang of misfits up against a Pinkerton-protected bank stagecoach—his 22nd such robbery this year, as we’ll learn. A really fun, violent chase/shootout ensues. At one point, a horse is blown up when someone shoots a dynamite-filled satchel on its saddle with a shotgun, so if that sounds like something you’re interested in, this is the movie for you! If it sounds like something you’re not interested in, well, it only happens the once.
The crew crashes the carriage and steals all the money, leaving one Pinkerton agent named Byron (Peter Fonda, why not) alive but gutshot. Over the course of the robbery, a second Pinkerton agent takes one of Ben’s men hostage so Ben shoots them both, thus establishing that he is evil. Evil!
Attracted like moths to (gun)fire, Dan Evans and his two sons stumble across the robbery in progress. Ben Wade turns out to not be quite evil enough to murder a man and his large son and smaller, less significant son just to cover up all the other murders he committed, so he only steals their horses. Dan objects but relents in the face of the gang, diminishing himself yet again in the eyes of his large, aggressive son.
Ben and his gang then return to town and trick the sheriff into leaving town to investigate the stagecoach robbery they just committed via the foolproof scheme of dressing Ben Foster up in a dirty coat and having him go tell the sheriff about the stagecoach robbery they just committed. Then they go to the local saloon to split up the take and part ways ’til the heat cools down. Ben (Wade, aka Russell Crowe, not Ben Foster aka Charlie Prince) takes the opportunity to seduce the bartender with a bunch of sweet talk about San Francisco and green eyes. The length of time it takes him to do perform this mating dance gets him captured by an angry Batman.
Batman, it turns out, was in town to try and talk his landlord out of burning down his house while his children sleep in it, an argument to which the landlord is less than receptive. Batman (aka Dan aka Christian Bale) decides to resort to plan B, which is large son’s plan to just shoot the landlord. Before he can, he stumbles across Ben Wade and holds him at gunpoint until the sheriff finds them.
Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), a representative of the bank whose money was stolen in the stagecoach robbery, offers $200 to any man who helps escort Ben Wade to Contention, Arizona where he will be placed on the 3:10 train to Yuma Territorial Prison. Dan aka Batman sees an opportunity to escape his crippling debt and redeem himself as a man in the eyes of his large son, so he volunteers immediately. They wind up putting together a posse consisting of Dan aka Batman, the violent nutjob who burned down Dan aka Batman’s barn, Peter Fonda, the town horse doctor (Alan Tudyk, always a delight), and Butterfield.
From that point forward, the movie is pretty fast-moving, as the group tries to make the 80 miles to Contention without being caught by Ben’s gang or letting the wily Ben Wade escape on his own. It would do a disservice to the kinetic nature of most of this segment of the movie to describe it in detail, so I will just recommend you watch it—this movie is a lot of fun.
Most of the crew dies over the course of the journey, though, leading to the final moments of the movie, and this, I think, is when it really starts to shine. Ultimately, we find Dan, his large son, Butterfield, and Ben Wade waiting in a hotel room, surrounded by Ben’s gang. All they have to do is wait for the train to get there and escort Ben to it, but the second anyone sets foot outside, they’ll be shot dead. Butterfield, the bank representative, feels it’s hopeless. He releases Dan from his obligation and even offers to pay him the $200 he would have earned for getting to the train. All he has to do is let known murderer Ben Wade walk free, even though Dan promised that was the one thing he wouldn’t do. And so the movie ultimately comes down to this question for Dan—is he the kind of a person who does what he says he’s gonna do, or isn’t he?
This, to me, is the real appeal of Westerns, and something that they have in common with superhero movies. (Remember when I asked you to consider that? Eh? CALLBACKS!) They present a scenario where the choice is black-and-white. Good vs. Evil. Right or wrong—which do you choose? So many other genres play in shades of grey, and of course some Westerns or superhero stories do too, but the spine of the genre, the fundamental idea that all the other stories are playing against, is white hats versus black hats. There is, of course, something to be said for nuance, but there’s something to be said for simplicity as well. Dan makes his choice, as must we all.
– This movie was directed by James Mangold, who has had an extremely interesting career. He wrote and directed both Girl, Interrupted and Kate & Leopold as well as the very good but supremely violent Logan. I just thought that was neat. He also did Identity, but I didn’t like that movie.
– The Pinkertons were a big deal in the 1800s, and the generally negative view people seem to have of them in this movie is pretty well-justified. They were basically private police hired by the rich as strikebreakers, and they were notoriously brutal. They also did government work, too, and a lot of it before the post-Civil War government got it together enough to establish a federal law enforcement bureau. Between 1870 and 1893, if the law was on your tail, odds are it was a Pinkerton.
– Luke Wilson, of all people, pops up as a racist mine manager during one mid-film sequence. I can’t tell if it’s distracting just because I happen to like Luke Wilson a lot (his X-Files guest appearance is an all-timer) or if it’s genuinely weird to see Richie Tenenbaum delivering extremely harsh opinions of his Chinese labor force. I lean towards the latter.
– Speaking of actors, Russell Crowe is a lot of fun as the charming gang leader. He pivots from “erudite warrior poet” to “stabbing a man in the neck with a fork” pretty effortlessly. Likewise, Christian Bale fully inhabits Dan’s simmering rage and resentment at the hand he’s been dealt in life. They both provide such balanced, excellent performances and I don’t think the film would work without the grounded, subtle performance Bale gives.
– Really can’t overstate how great Ben Foster is in this as a preening, murderous psychopath. The movie is literally just worth watching for him, aside from being a great flick all on its own. His extremely cool leather coat is “bone-white,” according to several internet websites.