Lionsgate, 122 minutes
Last year, James Mangold, the 44-year-old director of the Oscar-winners Walk the Line (2003) and Girl, Interrupted (1999) remade the 1957 Western 3:10 to Yuma. The original film, directed by Delmer Daves, was based somewhat loosely on a 1953 short story by Elmore Leonard, a prolific novelist of the gritty old West perhaps best known these days for his 1990 novel, Get Shorty. Mangold clearly venerates Daves’s original, going so far as to replicate verbatim significant portions of its dialogue. But he parts company with Daves in several ways, particularly in the critical final scenes. Mangold pronounced the 1957 original’s ending “cornball” for being too pat and, above all, bloodless. In remedying this defect, Mangold’s 2007 version kills off several people before the credits roll.
By adding grit and bloody “realism” perhaps Mangold hoped to earn a third Oscar. If so, it was to no avail: His remake made some box-office money and won critical acclaim (one reviewer praised it as “the best Western since Unforgiven”), but Mangold’s Hollywood colleagues virtually ignored it on their Oscar ballots. Apparently, his realism did not satisfy contemporary Hollywood’s view of the Western myth, and that myth’s origin in America’s besotted soul.
Both film versions of 3:10 to Yuma tell the story of Dan Evans (played by Van Heflin in 1957 and Christian Bale in 2007), a down-and-out, down-in-the-mouth cattleman living with his wife and boys on their drought-stricken Arizona ranch in the years just after the Civil War. Driven by poverty, Evans accepts the hazardous task of escorting a murdering stagecoach robber, Ben Wade (played by Glenn Ford in 1957 and Russell Crowe in 2007), to the train station, where Wade is to be placed on the 3:10 train headed to the Yuma prison. But Wade is no run-of-the-mill thief and murderer: He is the charismatic, near-legendary leader of a pack of bloodthirsty bandits. Yet in the course of Evans’s two-day effort to evade Wade’s gang and put him aboard the 3:10 train, Evans and Wade develop a mutual affinity that culminates in cooperation and respect. At the conclusion of both films, Wade suddenly opts to help Evans elude his own gang, allowing himself to be put on the train to jail (though it’s clear in both versions that, having escaped Yuma prison before, Wade will likely do so again).
On these basic plot points both films agree. (Both depart significantly from Leonard’s story, where Evans is a local law officer, not a rancher, and where no melding of hearts occurs between the two men.) But the two versions otherwise differ throughout. The 1957 version starts with Wade’s gang robbing a stagecoach. The 2007 version takes a very different, darker approach, beginning with a portrait of Dan Evans’s desperation. We learn that Evans lost his left foot fighting for the North in the Civil War. Plagued by the drought, he is behind in his rent. His landlord, eager to retake Evans’s land, dispatches hired thugs to raze his barn. Enraged, Evans’s 14-year-old son prepares to fire on the intruders, but Evans prevents this, assuring the boy, “I’ll take care of this.” The son, openly contemptuous of his father’s apparent impotence, snarls, “No, you won’t.”
Life for Mangold’s Evans is even worse than the opening scene reveals. We later see Evans appealing to the landlord for more time, only to be roughed up and chided by his creditor to recognize “just how small he is.” We learn that his son’s contempt is matched by his wife’s aversion. Evans tell us that even God, to whom he has prayed for help daily throughout the three years since his war injury, “ain’t listening.” Mangold’s Evans comes nearly to resemble Job himself.
None of this transpires in the 1957 original. Daves’s Evans is simply down on his luck due to drought. This has produced some marital tension, but no above-the-law landlord burning down his barn and no contemptuous son. (Quite the contrary; the 14-year-old sympathizes with his father’s plight.) Moreover, he has two healthy feet. Absentee law-enforcement, insubordinate children, unloving wives and severed limbs—these are the dark materials with which Mangold sets out to overthrow the anodyne 1950s worldview of the original. Abandoned by man and God, by courts and kin, Evans has been dealt so rotten a hand that one begins to suspect that Mangold has stacked the deck in the name of realism. But if he has stacked the deck, he has done so in an intriguing way, as we see by comparing how the two versions end.
At the original’s climax, Wade surprises the audience, Evans and perhaps himself when he is transformed out of admiration for the rancher’s bravery and integrity. Evans refuses to be bribed, and demonstrates enormous moral and physical courage in saving Wade from a vigilante assault. More than that, he faces down Wade’s gang alone, because all the men pledged to take Wade to the train station flee after a member of their posse, Potter, is lynched by Wade’s gang. Evans, who initially took on the task just for the money, is inspired by Potter’s sacrifice. Potter risked his life for the common good, and now Evans tells his wife that he can do no less. Having witnessed all this, Wade then prevents his gang from shooting Evans, and joins him on the train as it pulls out of the station.
Wade explains his turnabout to a querulous Evans as having been motivated by “not wanting to owe” him for having earlier saved his life. But we are meant to see this as a deliberate understatement, a manly way to avoid telling a tender truth. During their time together, this master criminal has come to recognize true justice, a chain of obligation that binds human beings beyond merely self-interested tit-for-tat. Thus ennobled in Wade’s eyes, Evans achieves heroic virtue, and Wade is so moved by Evans’s heroism that he is civilized in the strict sense of the term: He becomes capable of living in civil society, even if in a jail cell. The viewer is meant to see the rancher’s moral resolve in the face of untamed nature as a microcosm of how the West was won.
Mangold’s version, especially its ending, is quite different in specifics, but not in what it ultimately communicates. Wade cooperates with Evans not only out of admiration, but also compassion, if not outright pity, after Evans tells him how he lost his foot in the war—shot by one of his own men during his unit’s retreat the first time he saw action. “You try telling that story to your boy. See how he looks at you then”, laments Evans. Moved by this confession, Wade relents and guides Evans past his gang to the station. The combatants have become allies, as symbolized in both films by their being forced to hole up in the bridal suite of the local hotel, the only room available, as they await the train.
This symbolic matrimony issues in at least two births, or rather, rebirths. Evans’s previously contemptuous and willful son (renamed “Will” in Mangold’s version) comes to venerate his father and tame his own spiritedness. Wade is reborn as well, but befitting the tragic tone of the remake, his rebirth requires destruction. In Mangold’s ending, Wade’s gang shoots Evans in the back only seconds after he places the willing Wade on the train. Enraged and heartsick over the murder of Evans, whom he has come to call “friend”, Wade then kills the remaining members of his gang as a stunned Will looks on. As his father lies dying at his feet, Will prepares to shoot Wade, who does not resist, standing motionless, hands at his side, a willing sacrifice. But the boy, now become a man, does not shoot. Will returns instead to his dying father as Wade returns to the train, placing himself under arrest.
Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma has an unquestionable power and grace. Its actors, character development, pacing and technique far outstrip the original, proving Mangold a master of his craft. More important, his film evinces a far deeper understanding of human nature than the other Oscar-drenched modern Western to which so many observers quite naturally compared 3:10: Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992).
Unforgiven supposedly “revived the Western”, but if so, it only did it by destroying its moral content. Its clear aim was to debunk the Western’s signature messages: that there is cosmic support for justice; that redemption is possible; and that bravery is essential to the foundation of civilization. Unforgiven’s moral core resides in the following exchange between Eastwood’s character, William Munny, and Gene Hackman’s “Little Bill.” As Munny prepares to blow the head off the fallen Little Bill at point-blank range, the latter cries, “I don’t deserve this!” To which Munny, a self-confessed murderer of “women and children”, rejoins: “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
With this denial of moral foundations and the debunking of heroism, Hollywood giddily agreed. For garroting the “myth of the West” once and for all, Eastwood found himself suddenly swimming in Oscars. Hollywood eagerly agreed with Eastwood again, when Million Dollar Baby, named Best Picture at the 2005 Academy Awards, showed how heroism and determination reap only pain and death. And again, when he debunked the notion of patriotism in Flags of Our Fathers (2006).
Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma stops in its tracks well short of Eastwood’s moral abyss. It attempts to walk the line between the nihilism of Unforgiven and what Mangold deems, rightly in some respects, the shallow optimism of the 1957 version and of 1950s America generally. It is therefore not surprising that Mangold’s attempt to make the original more realistic has itself been attacked by those who admire Unforgiven. The Chicago Tribune review argued that Mangold’s ending stretched its “reversals beyond any good sense”, while the Boston Globe added that the new ending “might have worked in a 1950s film”, but not in our “post-Clint Eastwood universe.” It is all fine and good that a fine and good man is murdered in front of his young son. No problem there. But who can believe that Wade really would be redeemed by such a spectacle? After all, idea of moral redemption is “so 1950s.” If, as the contemporary Hollywood meme has it, we seek in vain for redemption, must we—we would-be heroes, we Americans, we human beings—remain forever unforgiven?
This question brings us to the core of the debate about realism in film, and with it, to the revisionist assault on the Western myth itself. It is no accident that these debates are conjoined: Revisionists launched the attack on the Western myth for the sake of a “more realistic account” of the West, of America, of human nature, and the post-heroic Western movie is an accomplice in that attack. For contemporary historical realists, so-called civilization is less about the pursuit of justice and more about the use of power to satisfy selfish desires. As Wade observes in the remake, “It’s man’s nature to take what he wants.”
Yet the power of the Western myth, as Wade’s sacrifice testifies, endures in our suspicion that human nature cannot be reduced to unbridled egoism. The classic Western was born of, and in turn appeals to, our longing for more than the comfortable self-preservation guaranteed by modern consumer democracy. The Western myth never understood or presented the human condition as a merry trot down happy trails. Rather, it aligns with the Bible and with Roman mythology in the view that civilized politics originates in violence: Cain’s slaying of Abel led to the establishment of the first political community in Genesis; Rome was born from the murder of Remus by brother Romulus; so, too, must the lone cowboy hero shed blood, but he does so to establish civilization on the untamed frontier. His is a selfless and self-negating act, shown by the fact that every conventional Western ends with the hero riding away from the new community of laws and ordinary decency, a world he cannot join. A man so extraordinary, writes Aristotle, violates political equality to such an extent that he must either be made king or ostracized—and democracy abides no kings.
If the hero’s manliness, independence and unswerving commitment to principle serve, in the final count, to place him at odds with the very civilization he helps to found, then what is the purpose of the Western myth? The deliberate mythmakers of the late 19th century—Teddy Roosevelt, Francis Parkman, Owen Wister and others—a form of social Darwinism seemed to be at work. They feared that the frontier’s closing would make scarce the pioneer hero’s qualities, that soft-bellied citizens might sell off America’s democratic civilization, a birthright won with the blood of hard men, for the promise of a materially affluent, secure and gentler life. After all, did not Adam Smith himself say that the virtue of the new commercial republic would no longer be manliness, as was true of the ancient republics, but “humanity”, which “is the virtue of a woman”? Indeed, Smith, Locke, Montesquieu and the other founders of Enlightenment modernity promoted democratized commerce as a means of softening manners—especially those of males—making men and nations more alike and interdependent, all in the name of freedom at home and peace abroad.
The classic Western novel and film of the 20th century, whether as acts of deliberate mythmaking or Hollywood moneymaking, thus aimed to supply images of a strong manhood to provide a tonic against the soul-enervating effects of life in a commercial republic. Given the historical context—the Depression, World War II and the Cold War—it’s not difficult to see why many believed such a tonic was necessary.
However, it seems that Smith was right in the longer run. Many Americans, not only the novelists, filmmakers and historians among us, have become uncomfortable with cowboy virtues and have made peace with a bureaucratic state that actively rectifies perceived inequalities stemming from wealth, race and gender. Manliness is no more at home in this universalizing and homogenizing project than it is with democratic capitalism. Moreover, some have always distrusted the classic Western’s tacit support for Manifest Destiny. Besieged on all sides, then, it seems inevitable that the classic Western had to limp away into the sunset, gut-shot by the “anti-Westerns” of the 1960s (Little Big Man being a stellar example) and finally put out of its misery by Unforgiven.
Mangold’s project suggests, however, that the Western myth has not breathed its last. His own protestations notwithstanding, the power of his 3:10 springs from elements it shares with the Western myth that are flatly antithetical to the zeitgeist of Unforgiven, in whose world there are no heroes to be found, and no communities that merit heroic sacrifice—only oppressors and the oppressed. Mangold’s 3:10 nearly derails along this same track of argument, but its ending elevates it by managing, to borrow a phrase from Machiavelli, to both “satisfy and stupefy” its audience. Unforgiven leaves us only stupefied and demoralized; Mangold satisfies our need to see justice done, to witness and experience renewal and redemption, and therewith to see reaffirmed the “old virtues” of the cowboy hero. Through his refusal to be seduced by easy money, his stubborn resistance to mediocrity and his valor in the face of death, Dan Evans inspires and edifies us. And he does not die in vain: In addition to redeeming Will and Wade, Evans, like every classic Western hero before him, has through his sacrifice laid the foundation for civilization. In this the audience feels a sense of moral satisfaction denied it by Unforgiven and the post-heroic Westerns of that ilk.
If that were not enough, Mangold adds one additional spark of genius: He makes the Western myth self-referential by depicting Wade throughout as an accomplished pencil-sketch artist. This foreshadows his potential as a master of artifice in duping and ultimately annihilating his own gang. This is no accident: Machiavelli adds “fraud” to “violence” in the list of ingredients necessary to form a political community.
Indeed, for the Western myth to exercise its ennobling effect, virtue needs the cooperation of art to tell, perhaps even to embellish, its story. By making Wade both an instrument of justice and an artist, Mangold inserts himself, one degree removed, into his own film. This innovation may not exactly fulfill Socrates’ view of the proper role of art in society, but it’s a whole lot closer to it than most of what comes out of Hollywood these days. For this reason alone, any other difficulties one might have with 3:10 to Yuma should not remain unforgiven.