Spin the yarn
A new take on a classic western does some justice
In all of its manifestations—Elmore Leonard short story, 1957 film with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, 2007 “remake” with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale—3:10 to Yuma is a riveting tale, an offbeat western yarn in which a hard-pressed rancher and family man (Bale/Heflin) takes on the daunting task of transporting a deviously charismatic outlaw (Crowe/Ford) from the isolated town where he has been captured to a railroad town where he can be put on the train to Yuma and prison.
What looms as a difficult chore at first becomes an increasingly daunting and morally challenging task as rancher Dan Evans’ scant supporting crew dwindles and outlaw Ben Wade’s gang escalates its homicidal campaign to set him free. More crucially, prisoner and captor become enmeshed in an increasingly elaborate game of moral/psychological cat-and-mouse, with the insouciantly manipulative outlaw repeatedly putting the pro tem lawman on the defensive.
What was a classically compact heroic epic in the 1957 version (directed by Delmer Daves) gets expanded into a sprawling, semi-tragic morality play in the new one (directed by James Mangold). With both we get a good deal of complex character drama, which ranges fascinatingly far away from the moral simplifications of the western in its most clichéd and conventional forms.
Now, in appositely contrasting ways, Crowe and Bale are both terrific, and a strong supporting cast gives vivid form to the film’s intriguing array of gloomily ferocious secondary characters. Peter Fonda, as a wearily indestructible bounty hunter, and Ben Foster, as the flashiest and most lethally loyal member of Wade’s gang, are special standouts.
Mangold’s amped-up version is an augmentation as much as a remake. The higher body count and a certain element of gore are perhaps predictable, but they are also consistent with the new film’s harsher and more radical views of its characters.
The new version strains a bit to provide both main characters with some psychological backstory, and it has greatly enlarged the role of Evans’ teenage son, while somewhat reducing the significance of the key female characters, Evans’ wife and a dance-hall girl with whom Wade has a brief affair.
Fonda’s character is an invention of the remake, which also adds episodes of an Apache attack and a confrontation with railroad men overseeing a gang of Chinese laborers. Meanwhile, the Foster role is a spectacular amplification of a character memorably played by Richard Jaeckel in the earlier version.
I prefer the 1957 film (which has been reissued on widescreen DVD), but I’m glad to have this new version as well. As an example of contemporary Hollywood baroque, it is exceptional. And besides, the really good western stories are often the sort that thrive on telling and re-telling.