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3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Directed by James Mangold
Written by Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt & Derek Haas
Starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Alan Tudyk, Gretchen Mol, and Peter Fonda
122 minutes, rated R
I am a fan of James Mangold. I knew as soon as his name appeared in the credits for Identity that I would be selecting another one of his films for the next entry. The real dilemma for me was choosing which of his films to put a spotlight on. He has never done a film that I didn’t appreciate.
Ultimately, I chose 3:10 to Yuma because, I think, it is my favorite of his films. But that created another dilemma . . .
3:10 to Yuma is a remake.
The Thing. Always. The Magnificent Seven. True Grit. Cape Fear. 3:10 to Yuma. This list of film titles is a list of remakes. More germane to our discussion here, though, this list of film titles is a list of remakes that I personally enjoyed and would recommend. Notice the brevity of that list. On more generous days, I might add the 2005 version of King Kong, but that’s only one more title. The list would still be pretty short.
Fact is, I was unaware that a couple of the films in that list even were remakes before I watched them. Had I known ahead of time, I may not have ever seen them. I will spare you the lengthy (and possibly pretentious) discourse on why I think a lack of originality is killing Hollywood deader than dead and that the vast number of remakes (especially in the horror genre) foisted on movie-going audiences every year is pretty good proof that I’m not wrong. Suffice it to say that I am not the target audience for remakes. I tend to avoid them.
However, every movie in the list above had something else appealing to me that made it a worthwhile cinematic venture with or without my knowledge that it was a remake. The Thing and Always are two films that I did not know were remakes when I saw them (and, I should add, it can be argued that The Thing isn’t even a remake at all). I was aware that The Magnificent Seven was a remake (of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai), but had not seen the original until long after I had watched The Magnificent Seven enough times that I could justify its inclusion in my list of Favorite Films of All Time. True Grit and Cape Fear were well-received remakes of films that I had already seen and loved, but were made by filmmakers whose previous works had made them directors that I watched religiously (in this case, The Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese, respectively). Similarly, my knowledge that 3:10 to Yuma was a remake did not deter me from wanting to see it. Because of its director, its stars, and public knowledge that Halsted Welles, the screenwriter of the original film, was given, very prominently, a screenwriting credit for the new version (18 years, I should add, after he had died).
As strange, in retrospect, as it is to say, I was actually somewhat excited to see this remake. More so, at any rate, than I was to see King Kong, which I really only saw first run because I happened to be managing a movie theater that exhibited it. My wife, who was then only my girlfriend, was also interested in seeing it. It had been, prior to this, very, very difficult to get her to focus any amount of time whatsoever on any western that 1) didn’t star Kurt Russell 2) didn’t star Val Kilmer or 3) wasn’t titled Tombstone. So we went to see it on a Saturday afternoon, with me forcing my own brain as we drove to the Savoy 16 to let go of any pre-conceived notions I might have due to my own love for the original film. Forcing myself, essentially, to accept the movie I was about to see as its own entity, separate from the original. Pretending, essentially, that I had not seen the original and had no basis of comparison between the two.
I gotta tell you . . . once we had watched the film and I had sufficiently processed it enough to begin comparing the two . . . the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma was, to my mind, a superior film. And that realization is the only time in a lifetime of watching film that this has ever happened. It’s an important enough tidbit that it bears repeating: the new version of 3:10 to Yuma is, in many ways, a better film than the 1957 original. This is a bold statement because the original film is widely-regarded as a classic of the genre, enough so to be included as release number 657 in the Criterion Collection.
Why is the new version better? In order to break that down, I have to spend some time talking about the original.
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Directed by Delmer Daves
Written by Halsted Welles
Starring Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, Leora Dana, Henry Jones, Richard Jaeckel, and Robert Emhart
92 minutes, Not Rated
Okay. Now, I suppose I chose my earlier words poorly. My claim that the remake of 3:10 to Yuma is a better film is a tad hyperbolic. But there are elements of the new version that I prefer.
The 1957 version is a just-about perfect film, succinct and tense, straight to the point. Possibly most famous for its cinematography, the mix of deep focus shots and closeups of the actors’ faces were an obvious inspiration to Sergio Leone in his series of spaghetti westerns. The only thing that the 2007 version really has over the original is a more superior story, but we’ll get to that in a few moments.
First, the original. The film centers around nefarious outlaw Ben Wade (played against type by Glenn Ford) who has finally been captured after a long string of stagecoach robberies. Authorities want to transport him to Contention City to catch a train to Yuma, where Wade will face a public hanging. Down on his luck farmer Dan Evans (played by Van Heflin) and Alex Potter, the town drunk (played by Henry Jones), agree to a payment of $200 each to be the escort.
The original film is not your typical western. It does not revolve around holdups and shootouts (though the film’s narrative is perfectly book-ended by both). This film is more psychological in nature than most westerns of the era. In fact, a majority of the movie takes place in one room– the bridal suite of a hotel in Contention City– where we watch as Evans holds a bound Wade at gunpoint for the final hours before the train arrives, hoping against hope that the train arrives before Wade’s gang arrives to rescue him. It’s mostly clever dialogue, a verbal cat-and-mouse, as Wade tries every conceivable gambit to convince Evans to let him go. Throughout, the motives of each man seem mixed. Is Evans in this for the money? Is he doing this for some respect from his wife? And what of Ben Wade, who is miles more reasonable, charming, and accommodating than any of the so-called good guys? Especially for a man whom we witness sacrifice one of his own gang in the first few minutes of the film.
The 2007 version of the film follows the same plot trajectory almost to the letter. If it happened in the original, it happens here– right down to entire scenes of duplicated dialogue (this is, I think, why the screenwriter of the original film receives a writing credit), but the new version adds new material and characters. Subsequently, it also downplays the psychological aspects of the original film, focusing more on the action and character. In any other remake, I may consider this a flaw, but what gets added to the new version helps elevate an otherwise eventless story.
The main difference between the two stories is that, in 2007, they actually show the journey from Evans’ drought-plagued farm to the hotel room in Contention. The journey itself is not depicted for a single frame in the original film, but in this version, the journey to Wade’s final judgement gets the most narrative mileage. On this journey, we get a taste of Ben’s pyschosis when he brutally murders a Pinkerton agent while the rest of his captors sleep. He also escapes at one point, only to be captured again by a band of railroad men, forcing Dan and his companions to infiltrate the railroad camp to break him out. There is some trouble as well with some Native Americans. All of these changes add up to a higher body count than the original, an increased focus on sociopathic behavior, but they also allow us to spend more time with our two main characters. We experience them do more than just sit in a hotel room and talk. We see them struggle with one another, work with one another, and, in one instance or two, rely on one another. The greater focus on the journey adds new themes to the material. It adds new motivations to each character as they begin to sympathize with each other’s plight. It also, ultimately, helps build the story to an (in my opinion) even better climax.
Character depiction is probably the most jarring change. In the new version, Ben Wade is played by Russell Crowe. Crowe’s version of the outlaw is far more chaotic and way less charming than Ford’s career-defining depiction. He is also more obviously psychopathic. Dan Evans is played here by Christian Bale. Bale’s version of Evans has similar motivations and is just as desperate to prove himself, but is now depicted as a crippled veteran of the Civil War. Dan’s need to prove his masculine worth is exacerbated in this version by the addition of Dan’s son, William (played by Logan Lerman), joining Dan on the trek. This adds new themes as well, an exploration of the relationship between father and son, leaving Dan in a bitter inner battle to prove himself to be more than just a naive, crippled farmer to his eldest child. Another differences: Alex Potter (played in this version by Alan Tudyk) is a veterinarian instead of a drunk. Another addition: Evans is joined on the journey by a Pinkerton Detective (played by Peter Fonda) who was shot and injured by Ben Wade, creating a personal vendetta to see that he gets on the train in Contention.
The biggest change in character depiction, however, lies between the two renditions of Wade’s right hand man, Charley Prince. In the original, Prince is played by Richard Jaeckel, and he isn’t really given much to do besides bark orders at the rest of the gang and show up to save Wade when most convenient for the progress of the plot. In the remake, Charley Prince (played by Ben Foster) is a better-developed character, more rounded than his predecessor, given more screen time, and depicted as a psychotic homosexual who may be in love with Wade.
The latter change is important. Director Delmer Daves is best known for melodramas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These films were often criticized for sliding too easily into full-on camp. Daves started his career, though, with war films and masterful noirs. His recurring themes of social responsibility fit well into those. What separates his westerns from other westerns of the era is how well he retained those themes when he transitioned. With that said, contemporary critics argue that Daves was overtly clumsy with his use of sexual metaphor, and it has been argued that the famous bridal suite scene of 3:10 to Yuma is yet another example of too-obvious symbolism, an injection of unintentional homoeroticism. Consider: As he sits in his chair by the window, Dan is the dutiful wife. For his end, Ben promises to take care of him. The subtlety of this metaphor is completely lost in the remake, not only by truncating the bridal suite sequence but by shifting Dan’s character motivation to something that he needs to prove to his son rather than to his wife. In the original, Dan sits in the bridal suite as a metaphorical woman, but it is not because he is less of a man. Rather, he is on the verge of becoming the strong, moral man he has always been capable of. To do this, he must learn for himself what the woman in his life has already known. It’s a great subtext that, sadly, doesn’t occur in the remake. Subtext is traded in this film for the obvious.
I am undecided if this change hinders the remake or not. On one hand, it is refreshing to see a character that is obviously homosexual in a film of this genre. On the other, the shift from subtext to obvious causes the female characters to be superfluous. In the remake, the women have little purpose except spouting expository dialogue. I am inclined, after rewatching both versions recently, to lean toward the remake in this regard. The changes made to Charley’s character give him more depth, more backstory, more motivation. It makes Wade’s gang not only more volatile, but more sympathetic, which, in turn, heightens the suspense when events come to a head at the ending.
And speaking of endings . . . I much prefer the ending to the remake. I won’t spoil it (in fact, I encourage you to watch both versions of this film yourself). I will say that both endings involve Evans walking Wade at gunpoint through the streets of Contention City in the final moments before the train arrives. But the climax of this sequence is much darker in the remake. It is also better-earned. The final moments of the original film are inevitable, the way films of this nature (especially in 1957) are expected to end. The final moments of the remake are surprising, the culmination of the character arcs as they have grown and changed throughout the film. Or have they grown and changed at all?
It should be noted that both versions of this film are based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. Leonard was well-known for westerns early in his career, but became most famous late in life for crime novels. There have been many films recently based on his work (including Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, and Get Shorty, as well as the FX television series Justified). The source material for 3:10 to Yuma is one of the first pieces of fiction that Elmore Leonard ever published. It’s only a few pages long and centers entirely on Wade and Evans having a conversation as they sit in the bridal suite. Both versions of this film are testament to the skills of the involved screenwriters that such powerful material could be mined from such a small space.
As a writer who recommends film to others on a semi-regular basis (because– let’s face it– it should be assumed that I am recommending a film if I’m choosing to write about it), I find myself in a very unique position. It is not often that I am able to recommend two different versions of the same film to two different audiences. And this is where Mangold has really proven his genius. He has taken a film that has appeal to filmgoers who are not normally interested in the western genre, a film that has made its name for decades as a “thinking man’s” western, and converted it into quite possibly the most westerny western of the last two decades. A western for fans who believed that the genre may be dying. Both versions are worth your time.