The historic taming of the West was a brief span in American history. If you took all the Westerns made in the last 100 years they would take longer to view that the period actually lasted. While it may be hard to believe nowadays, the genre was a staple from the earliest days of film. It was able to fit all types of stories from simple melodramas, to comedy, to the narratives of complex antiheroes. Then suddenly, the western died. In the last three decades only a handful of westerns have been made. A genre that had served as a vehicle for every kind of story suddenly found itself unable to connect with the audience.
I think that as much as anything, Star Wars, and the onslaught of science fiction films in its wake, killed the western. America was no longer an agrarian nation with most people living close to farms and being familiar with animals and open spaces. Instead we were a technological juggernaut with people spending more time in cities and usually seeing animals in a zoo. Star Wars reflected that technological and environmental change. Star Wars borrowed heavily from Japanese Samurai movies, but before it came along those movies were the inspiration for many westerns. Star Wars replaced horse opera with space opera, black hats with black helmets and horses with spaceships. The paradigm had changed. We were more comfortable with our morality plays cloaked in high tech than the high plains.
But such a primary part of American film doesn’t die easily. Nowadays westerns are rare but each western is an event. They aren’t willing to settle for simplicity. In the modern era two westerns were able to catch the popular zeitgeist. Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves remade the classic cowboys vs. Indians story into a tale of an isolated man going native and seeing the conquest of the west from the viewpoint of the conquered. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven laid the old western stereotypes to rest for good, turning each upside down. The protagonists were criminals who stood for virtue. The lawmen were sadists and egomaniacs. The gunplay was brutal and final. And Hollywood noticed. Both Costner’s tale of racial understanding and Eastwood’s postmodern deconstructionism won Oscars for best picture and best director.
3:10 to Yuma pulls back from this complete abrogation of all the old archetypes. It’s a more classical western with good and bad guys and a lot of the old familiarity. There is a rancher about to lose his land to the bank, the building of the railroad, the character of the landscape, an Indian attack, a stagecoach robbery. But don’t think that they are just pulled out as set pieces. The ingredients may be familiar but director James Mangold uses all this action only as the backdrop for a character study of the two protagonists- one an injured veteran dealing with his own self image and a rebellious teenaged son, the other a charming sociopath being taken to his death. The relationship of these two men and how each causes the other to reassess his own life is the heart of the movie.
With all that western scenery, it’s easy for an actor to be overwhelmed. That isn’t a problem here. Russell Crowe gives another nuanced performance as Ben Wade, a sort of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rolled into one. He’s the leader of a gang of train robbers who rules with a combination of brains and brutal violence. In an early scene he shoots one of his own men rather than have a robbery thwarted. Yet after his capture he sits down to a meal with his jailers and shows a charming ambiguity that makes you wonder if he is as ruthless as he seems. Most of the drama results from never knowing which of these personas is going to win out in a given situation. And Crowe’s performance keeps you guessing which way the character will finally go right up to the end.
Balancing Crowe’s performance is Christian Bale as Dan Evans, a rancher who has to deal with trouble at home and the loss of his lower leg in the war. Evans son is attracted to Wade’s alternative to the workaday life on the ranch; his wife is ambivalent to him; and the bank is about to take his land because he’s having a bad year and the railroad makes his land worth more than his ranch. Bale doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with, his character’s stoicism provides a counterpoint to the charm of Ben Wade, but Bale has no problem acting with his face and eyes. In the end the story is as much about his redemption as it is about the redemption of the villain.
Westerns have always been famous for interesting supporting casts and 3:10 to Yuma is no different. Peter Fonda is the old Pinkerton who may be as sadistic as the men he arrests. Ben Foster plays his standard crazy-eyed psychopath as the gangs second in command who is perhaps a little too loyal to his boss. Logan Lerman and Gretchen Mol are a plausible rancher’s family- attractive but not too gorgeous. And Alan Tudyk turns in yet another interesting character performance in a role that has become a western stereotype- the alcoholic doctor who winds up being pressed into gunplay by circumstance.
There are a couple of groaners. For instance, in once scene a wounded Pinkerton is hustled into the doctor’s office and someone asks “Are you the doctor!?!” The town looks to have a maximum population of about 50 people so the idea that anyone wouldn’t know who the town doctor is seems pretty implausible. And the direction sometimes succumbs to the modern affectation of close ups and quick cuts in the action scenes. This may make it easier to shoot action sequences but it often makes the sequence confusing and is simply counterproductive when dealing with large action pieces such as the crash of a stagecoach. But these are minor quibbles in a movie that does so much right.
3:10 to Yuma is an old style Western with new age sensibilities. The action never drags but there is enough here to keep anyone interested even if they are not hypnotized by gunplay and explosions. The performances of the two leads are riveting, elevating this from being just another movie to being really worth watching.