10 September 2007

I Want to Ride (Again) on the 3:10 to Yuma

That I really enjoyed this week's release of the remake of 3:10 to Yuma shouldn't surprise anyone. I already have a strong bias in favor of the Western, one of my fannish loves in movies. I’ve seen the original 1957 movie, directed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. It was part of the "psychological Western" movement that developed during the decade in the wake of the success of High Noon; emphasis on stark photography (black and white and flat screen, even though in the late 1950s most major Westerns were shot in widescreen color), suspense, and character interaction rather than action. The original 3:10 to Yuma has a lot in common with High Noon in its use of a ticking clock and a hero who finds all his support abandoning him until only he remains to walk a wanted outlaw to the train station to catch the titular train—with the outlaw's whole gang waiting to gun him down. The focus is mostly on the tension between rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and the outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), whom Evans has to guard in order to get the reward money that can save his ranch. The movie isn't one of the great Western masterpieces, but it's a minor classic and well executed and performed. And it's a rare case of a film I don't mind seeing re-made.

And the re-make is definitely worth watching. Like the recent Open Range, this is an unapologetic and non-ironic Western. A Western with no excuses for the genre, no sly winking at the audience, and no joking about the setting. This is a Western folks, one of the great genres, and the filmmakers just let it play. It's more exaggerated and violent than the older Westerns, but this is true of any genre today.

Most of the original story (written by Elmore Leonard) remains, with some changes to events and characters. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) are fundamentally the same characters from the original, and the way Bale and Crowe square off is essentially the same as the Heflin-Ford conflict. The new version even repeats verbatim a few of the best scenes from the original, including the classic line of Evans asking Wade for an extra five dollars "for making me nervous." Ben Foster as Wade's right hand killer in the gang, Charlie Prince, is made a bit crazier than Richard Jaeckel in the 1957 version, but both are loose cannons kids lacking any sense of deceny—the true villains of the piece.

What the movie does change works well for 2007 audience expectations: Evans's first son is now older and plays a larger part in the movie; the town drunk played by Henry Jones in the original has essentially vanished and been replaced with nervous doctor played by Alan Tudyk; Peter Fonda (yeah!) plays a new character, a grizzled bounty hunter; the beautiful bartender of the original with the history with Wade (Felicia Farr) has a smaller role here (Vinessa Shaw) although does bascially the same task; a new action sequence takes the group esorting Wade through a canyon of renegade Apache and a railroad camp; and the finale, although keeping the spirit of how the 1957 movie ended, piles on some nice surprises.

Altogether, it's a great time with one the classic movie genres, and I think it's director James Mangold's best film to date. With it's successful opening weekend (#1), let's hope we will see some more Westerns to come galloping into the theater. The Western ain't dead, it's never been dead.

When the 3:10 to Yuma departs,
If I have the fare,
I'll be there,
I'll be there...