Westerns are routinely declared dead until one comes along that makes everyone realize the primal power they still exert — in our hearts and minds, and as cinematic art. Clint Eastwood managed to breathe new life into the art form in 1992 with his revisionist “Unforgiven” and now director James Mangold has done it again with “3:10 to Yuma.” These are both films that ask us to think about whether a man who has done unspeakable things can ever truly redeem himself from past demons and murderousness. The West is all about starting over — the question is, does that apply to spiritual agony? Or to recover from that, do you need to die yourself?
“3:10 to Yuma” is a remake of a classic 1957 western about a downtrodden rancher who bets his self-respect that he can get a charismatic and vicious outlaw to the train on time in order to face justice. Russell Crowe has inherited the outlaw role from Glenn Ford and Christian Bale takes over for Van Heflin. It’s full of genre amp-ups that are one-side of cliche, but it’s directed by Mangold from a script by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas in a way that feels fresh and original. This is the Wild West of the Arizona territory where a Civil War vet who lost a leg can go and start over as a rancher. It’s also a place where a bad guy can get a gang together and steal from just about anybody and the only people who have a chance to stop them, work for the railroads. What it comes down to is a story about self-respect and how much a man has to sacrifice in order to find it.
The Defending Champion
“Unforgiven” became the classic western by starting as a genre buster that gave a cynical spin on everything that came before it. It won the Oscar for Best Picture and became the most recent standard for the measurement of quality. Its story is a variation on the deadly gunslinger who hangs up his shootin’ irons and tries to go straight but events just won’t let him. It gave Eastwood, the lead and the director, the chance to blow apart his iconic Man with No Name western image and replace it with something sadder. I’ll never forget first hearing Eastwood utter a line written by screenwriter David Webb People’s that “It’s a hell of a thing killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” The set-up is fresh, though. A hooker has had her face cut in a small town saloon and her fellow whores have put out a reward to punish the man who did this. Events now inexorably drag a craggy and weathered William Munny into a final gunfight, against all of his better judgment.
Where “Unforgiven” busts the genre with original characters and observations, “3:10 to Yuma” decides to puff the genre up and make it as muscular as modern movie-making will allow. This gives us in “3:10″ a finale of a gunfight that simply defies the credibility of a shooting match the way that “Lethal Weapon” or “Die Hard” might get away with. We know it’s not real, but we’re in for the ride. Kevin Costner’s “Open Range” — another wonderful western — did the same thing, throwing aside its hard won reality for a shoot-out finish that could never have happened in the West or anyplace else.
There’s no doubt that Christian Bale’s Dan Evans is wonderfully brought to life in “3:10″ and that Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade is a smoothly unique (if not completely credible) character. But “Unforgiven” also gives us Gene Hackman in the memorable role of Big Whiskey’s sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, plus the cowering braggert called the Schofield Kid, played by Jaimz Woolvett, and Morgan Freeman as Munny’s friend and riding partner, Ned Logan. These performances stay with me to this day.
If you like westerns (and I do), you loved “Unforgiven” and you liked Kevin Costner’s “Open Range” and you will be rooting for “3:10 to Yuma” because you want to see more of these films made. None of these projects, by the way, come close to the poetry and grit of HBO’s “Deadwood” which almost single-handedly changed the western genre into something it had never been before.
There is lots to like in “3:10 to Yuma.” Extremely strong performances, beautiful scenery, and a thematic element worth rooting for. But this is a real fight, and the champ can’t lose on points…
“3:10 to Yuma” is worth shelling out your ten bucks to see it in the theater, but it’s not a perfect film. Details are wrong. The women in this film are just too pretty, down to red lips and perfect skin. People enter into bad plans thinking they’re good plans — and this applies to both Bale’s and Crowe’s characters. Crowe’s plan to knock over a stagecoach seems to rely heavily on being able to sustain major casualties, and Bale’s plan to walk Crowe to the station seems to rely on logic that seemed, to me, to be totally illogical. In “Unforgiven,” Eastwood’s William Munny knows damn well when he rides off from his pig farm that the amount of imponderables in his plan could lead to disaster. That’s what makes it the superior film. People do things in “Unforgiven” because they can’t do anything else, not because they think things are going to work out. “Unforgiven” remains undefeated, and getting to any train on time, can’t change that a bit.