3:10 to Yuma

The 1957 version 3:10 to Yuma, based on a story by Elmore Leonard and directed by Delmer Daves, is a simple moral tale of a man who didn’t seek out heroism but managed to find it anyway. Dan Evans (Van Heflin) was driven by drought and the threatened loss of his ranch to undertake a dangerous but necessary job that no one else wanted to do: escorting a highly dangerous prisoner, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), to the train that will take him to prison, even though he knows that Wade’s murderous gang will try to rescue him. Though he only takes the job on account of his desperate need for money, he soon realizes that he has taken on more than he bargained for — and that he cares about something else more than the money, however great his and his family’s need. The key line comes when the situation looks darkest and Leora Dana as Mrs Dan Evans asks her husband, “What are you going to die for? $200? Why?”

“I’ve got to, that’s all,” he replies, just as unable to articulate the nature of so undeniable an obligation as Gary Cooper had been in High Noon five years earlier. Then he goes on. “The town drunk gave his life because he thought people should be able to live in peace and decency together. Can I do less?”

Neither he nor Cooper uses the word “honor,” though it is the word they might have used another fifty years earlier. By the 1950s, the idea of honor had become morally and culturally tainted. But if the word was seldom used, the thing itself was what these men meant when they spoke of their obligations to stand steadfast against a determined foe no matter how great the danger or, in the end, how certain it was to cost them their lives. In the 1957 version, Dan’s honorable deed elicits an answering one from even so hardened a villain as Ben Wade. A young hot-head, whose brother has been killed by Wade, comes seeking a private vengeance at a point where Wade is powerless to resist him. Dan fights him off, determined that the law should be allowed to run its course because that is part of the civilization and decency he cites to his wife as reasons to die. Later, in gratitude to Dan — and because he thinks he stands a good chance of being able to break out of jail at Yuma (he’s done it twice before) — Wade gives him his cooperation in what would otherwise have been the impossible task of avoiding the rest of the Wade gang and putting him on the train to Yuma.

“I don’t like owing anybody any favors” he explains. Again it is honor, a form of pride in his own self-sufficiency, which motivates even a thief and a murderer, as sometimes thieves and murderers are motivated.

Of course all this is gone from the 2007 version, directed by James Mangold. Now there no real explanation beyond the money for the suicidal willingness of the new Dan (Christian Bale) to fulfil his contract in putting Wade (Russell Crowe) on the train. He seems to have been goaded to it partly by his brat of a son (Logan Lerman), who admires Wade as much as he is contemptuous towards his father, and partly out of shame that his own loss of a leg in the Civil War was a result of a friendly fire incident. There is, it’s true, a certain pride involved here too, but it is unconnected with any such higher or nobler cause as enabling people to live together in peace and decency. It is a mere personal and psychological anxiety.

Moreover, the answering act of Wade’s is not motivated by honor at all. There is an incident in which Dan and some others save him from torture at the hands of a renegade lawman and sadist — so much for the civic power that allows people to live in peace and decency! — but this is not referred to again by Wade. Instead, having taken some trouble to portray him as a sensitive, artistic type beneath the surface of his cold- blooded ruthlessness, the film presents him as being suddenly overcome by pity for the poor one-legged rancher whose son doesn’t respect him and who got shot by his own man. Not only does he suddenly and inexplicably develop a bleeding heart that is completely out of character for him, but he becomes Dan’s new best friend, willing to murder his own loyal gang members on his behalf.

I’ve seen a lot of implausible endings during my 17 years as a movie critic, but never one more implausible than that. No matter. Story-telling is not Mr Mangold’s strong suit — or Hollywood’s anymore. Political correctness is. Thus there is introduced into the story a ruthless Pinkerton agent called Byron, played by Peter Fonda, who is not only determined to hunt down bad guys like Wade but also any stray Indians who may be unfortunate enough to get in his way. It’s Wade who tells us that Byron has massacred 35 Apaches. “I guess Byron figured Jesus wouldn’t mind. Jesus don’t like Apaches.” Naturally enough, the bad guy associates himself with the oppressed and victimized indigenous peoples and the one-time presumptive good guy with their oppressors.

As usual in today’s movies, there are no good guys, only bad guys, some of whom (like Wade) are really kind of good, and their victims. It’s not often enough recognized that this standard model severely limits what it is possible to say on screen, which is why Mr Mangold’s Yuma is virtually indistinguishable from every other movie about violent men made in the last 30 years. One critic wrote: “The western, whose death has been announced so many times over the past few decades, rides again in James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma.” He thought he was talking about the same kind of thing in the original and the remake. But they are completely different. One was a serious attempt to come to terms with the proper and improper uses of violence; the other merely takes a prurient interest in it.


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