Oh how the mighty have fallen. The western genre used to be among the most popular genres; Hollywood would release dozens of westerns a year during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. But times have changed dramatically. Since the year 2000 Hollywood has only put out three large budget westerns, an average of less than one every two years. Two of these three are the recent remake of The Alamo and the Jackie Chan martial arts comedy Shanghi Noon. The only straightforward western Hollywood put out in the last decade was the underappreciated Kevin Costner film Open Range.
Audiences loved westerns all throughout the first half of the century. “Gunsmoke” was the most popular show on television, dime western novels were a staple of not so literary bookstores, and film audiences were flocking to see the latest cinematic representations of the frontier. But this all ended some time in the late sixties. Some say that youth counter-culture avoided westerns because they represented the establishment. I think however the genre declined because of simple market saturation. People could only watch the shootout at the O.K. Corral so many times (to date there have been eight representations of that famous gunfight on film).
That’s not to say there aren’t occasionally westerns, in fact there have been quite a few since 1970, but they’re no longer a major genre, instead there’s probably about one a year or so. But this isn’t entirely a bad thing. The fact that there are only one or two westerns a year lets each one of them be an event of sorts. I’ve never seen the original 1957 film 3:10 to Yuma simply because it looks no different than any of the other 10-20 westerns that came out that year. The film is all but forgotten today simply because it got lost in the shuffle of nearly identical westerns. The new remake of 3:10 to Yuma starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, however, comes out in an era where the genre feels special.
Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a down on his luck rancher who’s family is heavy in debt. By a turn of chance Evans witnesses a robbery on an armored carriage committed by Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). Wade and his posse return to town, his second in command Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) reports the robbery in order to distract the local law enforcement. The local police ride out to the scene of the crime where they find Evans aiding the sole survivor of the carriage robbery, Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda). They return to town where, who waited around too long, is captured. The Pinkertons decide to escort Wade to the town of Convention where they’ll put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma. Because the Pinkertons are short handed Evans, who is a civil war veteran, volunteers to ride with them for two hundred dollars.
Many modern westerns do everything they can to subvert the genre. This has lead to some great movies like Unforgiven, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and last year’s excellent The Proposition. 3:10 to Yuma ignores this concept entirely. This is a traditional western told in a very simple way. The story is nothing new, on paper it sounds like every other western ever made. The thing that sets this film ahead of other similar movies is simply an excellent execution.
The screenplay is quite good. As I said, the story is hardly revolutionary, but the this simple and somewhat clichéd story is very well told. The dialogue really sparkles, it sounds real but stylish at the same time. The characters are well rounded and three dimensional. Dan Evans has a very noble code of honor, but he’s no Dudley-Do-Right either, he is working for money after all. Evans also isn’t some kind of perfect gun fighting adventurer either. Ben Wade is even more interesting. He’s a violent criminal who’s willing to kill anyone who gets in his way, but one gets the feeling he doesn’t particularly like this about himself. He seems like a nice guy, he doesn’t act evil at all, but he does evil things anyway. The script is full of surprises, whenever you think something predictable is being set up it ends up being the opposite. The film doesn’t glorify the old west, it doesn’t turn away from many of the things that made the old west, not so great, but it never allows the setting to overwhelm the story itself.
What really puts this movie over the top is the acting. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are undeniably two of the greatest actors of their generation, and pairing them made this film particularly exciting. The pairing seems brilliant, but could have been troublesome as well, pairing two method actors like these could have easily lead to lots of yelling and scenery chewing, but the two actors restrain themselves brilliantly and give two solid performances. Crowe is an actor who seems to have been born to be in westerns, he’s one of the best tough guys working, almost a modern day John Wayne except with a much wider range. Crowe was in one western before this, Sam Raimi’s strange The Quick and the Dead, which was something of a missed opportunity for Crowe. Here however Crowe lives up to his western badass potential.
Christian Bale is the one who has a bigger challenge in the movie. He’s not the kind of brawler you’d naturally expect in a western the way Crowe is. It was essential that Bale worked here; if Russell Crowe’s villain had overshadowed Bale’s hero the film would have been in trouble. Fortunately Bale rose to the occasion. He plays a down to earth and believable farmer and gives the character life.
Both of the stars give great performances that help the movie immensely, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say either give performances for the ages. This isn’t the kind of acting you hand out Oscars for or put in top ten lists. This is great American movie star tough guy acting in the tradition of John Wayne and Lee Marvin, but done with modern sensibilities.
Crowe and Bale are not, however, the only actors in the movie. There are many good performances to be found throughout the movie. Ben Foster very nearly steals the show as the vicious second in command of Wade’s gang, Charlie Prince. Foster, whose career has floated well under my radar before now, makes himself known here with a vengeance. Peter Fonda also has a small, but important role here. His performance isn’t particularly outstanding, but he holds his own around all the talent here and has a great dialogue exchange with Russell Crowe. Logan Lerman plays Evan’s teenage son William, a role could have been problematic, but he makes it work.
No one will ever confuse director James Mangold of being a great auteur, but when he’s given good material he consistently puts out very good movies. He’s probably most famous for his Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, but he also made the thriller Cop Land and the horror/mystery Identity. The film is shot in a traditional but effective way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. The violence is fast and well choreographed, this isn’t an action movie per se, but when the bullets start flying the film is just as exiting as anything Hollywood tends to put out.
The film has really nice cinematography and excellent sound effects editing. I’ve said before that this film is very traditionally made, this is not to say that this is some kind of nostalgia work that is actively trying to look like a film from the 50’s, the film manages to feel like what it is, an old film made in contemporary times.
3:10 for Yuma is a great yarn. It’s the best (and only) traditional western since Open Range, and on par with the westerns of the genre’s golden age. Anyone looking for a great flick for adults should check it out.