Not your grandparents’ western

10Apr08

3:10 to Yuma is a movie directed by James Mangold that was released last year as a remake of the 1957 film by Delmer Daves and is based on the short story by Elmore Leonard. It’s awesome, to put it simply. It has some great actors in it: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale (mmm, sounds good already), Alan Tudyk (Firefly‘s Wash!), Peter Fonda … Plus, remember the guy who played Warren Worthington III/Angel from X-men 3? Ben Foster? He’s in it, and does a damn good job, too. I had only seen Foster in X-men 3, where Angel was a minor and timid character; Foster’s character in 3:10 is such a complete, dramatic reversal that I didn’t realize it was him at first. Kevin Durand’s in it, too (above left—the actor who will portray the Blob in X-men Origins: Wolverine.

Besides the well-chosen cast, 3:10 to Yuma is friggin’ brilliant in itself. It’s definitely not your typical western, however, and the story even broaches that point indirectly—but the film is better for it. The musical score is amazing, as well (particularly “The 3:10 to Yuma” and “Bible Study”). If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely a must-watch.

WARNING: SPOILERS

Christian Bale is Daniel Evans, a rancher who lost part of his leg in battle while defending the capital in the Civil War. Evans, one of the best shots in his regime, has lost the respect of his family and is losing his land to Glen Hollander, who wants to sell his land to make way for the railroad. The romance in his marriage has died, and while his youngest son Mark still adores his father, William—who is about fourteen-years-old—is disgusted with his father’s inability to take care of his family and stand up for what is right. Desperate to regain his dignity and his family’s belief in him, Evans volunteers to help escort fugitive and outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to Contention, where he was board the 3:10 train to Yuma prison in order to be tried and sentenced. “No one can think less of me,” Evans tells his wife dejectedly when she attempts to dissuade him from leaving with Wade, a dangerous killer, whom she thinks Dan can’t handle. “I’m tired, Alice. I’m tired of watching my boys go hungry. I’m tired of the way that they look at me. I’m tired of the way that you don’t.” It is later revealed that Mark was diagnosed with tuberculosis when he was two, and to survive he must reside in a dry climate. Unless Daniel can repay his debts to Hollander (accompanying Wade to the train will earn him $200), he and his family will be forced to move.

(L to R) Doc Potter, Dan Evans, Ben Wade, Byron McElroy, & Grayson Butterfield

With the aid of Doctor Potter (Alan Tudyk), Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), Frayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), and Tucker (Kevin Durand), Evans sets off with the prisoner on horseback for Contention after they successfully trick Wade’s gang into thinking he is being held in a coach headed in the opposite direction. By the time Wade’s outfit realizes it is not Ben in the coach, Ben’s right-hand man, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), leads the crew in search of their boss.

The film starts off with action in mere minutes, and although the film is not by any means slow-paced, it does move into full-fledged, western-style action satisfyingly quickly. However, although the story itself is interesting, the characters are arguably more so. Moreover, themes such as loyalty, justice, God, and heroism are present throughout 3:10, but not stereotypically.

William (Logan Lerman) and his father

William, though forbidden by his father to join them, follows the group and soon his presence is revealed. In many ways William is a representation of what his father once was. Indeed, both men are moral, but due to the nature of Daniel’s experiences in the war he is defeated and more reserved. His appearance—Dan wears a weathered hat and has a wooden leg that gives him a limp—reflects his fallen state. Unlike William’s fiery (and consequently naïve) spirit and headstrong attitude, Daniel would rather submit passively then take decisive action and risk losing what little he has left. Also, William asks why his father won’t just shoot Hollander; later, Daniel mentions that shooting an animal is a lot different than shooting a man. Daniel might have less hope than he used to—he tells his wife, Alice, “I’ve been standin’ on one leg for three damn years waiting for God to do me a favor … and he ain’t listenin'”—but William serves as a reminder for Daniel, who decides to accompany Wade and the others to Contention, of what a man is supposed to be, and he soon realizes his eldest son’s strength. The more time Daniel spends with his son, the more he regains of the person he used to be.

William, who in the beginning of the film has no faith in his father anymore, fantasizes about a life of excitement, action, and heroism. In the first scene of the movie William is looking at a pulper titled “The Deadly Outlaw,” and when he meets renegade Ben Wade face-to-face, he is in awe of him, an awe that soon grows into admiration. Shirking his responsibilities and the life he has now for one like Wade’s is tempting for him, and when William confronts Wade near the end of the play, William tells Ben he believes he is “not all bad,” supporting his statement with shaky justification. However, Ben destroys William’s idolization of him, and William realizes that his true hero is his father.

The Deadly Outlaw, Ben Wade

But Daniel is not a hero; he admits this to Ben at Contention when they are waiting for the train. There is a rather interesting parallel between Dan and Ben (interesting similarity in name structure, too), for there is a darker side to Daniel that appeals to Wade. Indeed, Wade draws three things throughout the movie: a bird, a beautiful woman, and lastly Daniel in the hotel. To him, Daniel is fascinating, and perhaps on some level they understand each other despite their differences—or, at least, they are surprised by what find they share in common viscerally. At the end of the film, Daniel reveals how he lost his leg (“you try telling that story to your boy and see how he looks at you”), but instead of killing him and fleeing, Wade agrees to board the train to Yuma prison, where he’s been and escaped from twice already. Wade realizes that Dan didn’t come along because of moral reasons, as he previously said; while he wants the reward money to protect his family and save their land, the simple truth is that Dan needs to regain his dignity and his family’s respect.

Even after Dan is shot and killed by Charlie in the final scene and Ben has the opportunity to escape, he gets on the train anyway. Previously, when defending his reasons for being the only man left willing to see Wade to the 3:10 train, Daniel asks William what the others gave their lives for (“Little red ants on a hill,” Ben points out). Yet knowing that he can escape from Yuma prison again (he calls his horse to ride beside the train for that purpose), Ben endures the train ride so that Daniel’s death is not in vain. Symbolically, he is confirming Daniel’s dignity and his masculinity—in other words, his ability to gets things done and protect his family. Justice is only a cover; while the film has no happy ending, it is not necessary that it does. To think so would be missing the point.

Loyalty is also disregarded. It is ironic that Charlie Prince, who was loyal to Ben possibly to the point of homosexual desire (“I will wait for you”), was killed by the one person he fought so hard to save. “Maybe you forgot what he done for us,” he tells one of the gang members, who muttered that it was Ben’s own fault for getting caught and that he could probably do a better job leading the outfit. What is more, after Daniel’s demise Ben shoots all other surviving members of his crew out of revenge.

Charlie Prince(ss), played by Ben Foster, hates possies.

It is not clear, however, why at the end of the movie, as William kneels beside his father’s body and calls his father’s name gently, he then rises with his gun pointed at Wade. Perhaps Daniel told him to, having just learned that Ben will only break out of prison again and inevitably cause more death and destruction, and did not want to carry that knowledge and guilt to the grave. Still, Dan looked pretty fucked up and I doubt he was able to say anything—and you’d think, if he could, “Kill him” would not be his last words to his son. Maybe William turned his gun on Wade because he blamed him for his father’s death and, wanting revenge on anyone remotely linked to his murder, Ben was the only one available at that moment to eat the bullet. Wade turns to face William, but realizing that Wade did not kill his father and actually avenged him, he lets him get away. To the shock of William and especially Butterfield, for neither of them had been privy to Ben and Dan’s previous discussion, Ben calmly boards the train.

Interestingly, the concept of God plays a unique role in 3:10 to Yuma. In the film, God is given no credit or praise by any of the main characters. Indeed, Dan confessed that he had been wasting time waiting on God to help him if only he continued to lead a moral, patient life. William, while not referencing God in the movie, might feel likewise, as his policy seems to be the old saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” To Wade, God is symbolic of a curse. He tells Dan the story about being abandoned by his mother at a train station. She had given him the Bible to read (which explains why such an immoral man is able to justify his actions and beliefs with biblical quotes), which he says he read “cover to cover” over the course of three days. His mother, on the other hand, never came back for him. Early in the film, Ben warns Tucker to be careful with his gun because it is cursed; ironically, Tucker ends up dead. When Charlie returns Ben’s black gun to him after shooting Daniel, we see it up close before Ben murders Charlie and the rest of his crew with it: There is a gold crucifix on the handle. In fact, his gun is named “The Hand of God.” His gun (black like a Bible’s cover and bearing a gold crucifix), represents God for him. Blasphemous? Hell yes. But it is not to Ben—it simply is. It’s his truth; it’s what he knows.

The film ends with the train pulling away, leaving us with no idea what might follow. Based on the information given to us, William will return home with Butterfield to his mother and younger brother and the ranch and land will remain theirs, as will the generous amount of money (more than $1000) Butterfield promised Daniel. Their lives will be easier and better thanks to Daniel’s sacrifice. Nevertheless, what lies in the future for Ben Wade is uncertain. Does killing his entire outfit and boarding the train mean he is going to lead a different life (although whistling for his horse suggests he has no intention of staying in prison)? After all, he mentioned to Daniel on the way to Contention that he doesn’t bother doing anything good because once a man does a moral deed, Ben “imagines it becomes habit for him.”

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6 Responses to “Not your grandparents’ western”

  1. 1 John

    Excellent film. Excellent performances. Crowe and Bale were obviously amazing, but everybody else stepped up, too. I thought Logan Lerman was really solid and he held his own with Bale and Crowe. (And I kept thinking he’d make a great Robin to Bale’s Batman.) Ben Foster was INSANE and really sold it.

    Excellent review.

  2. Hey, John! Thanks! =D

    There were definitely some very good performances—which is not surprising considering some of the actors (and you definitely can’t go wrong with Bale, as we both know). But Foster really did surprise me, especially since the only other thing I’ve seen him in is X-men 3.

    Haha, good point about Lerman. I could see that.

  3. 3 John

    I didn’t like 30 Days of Night very much, but Ben Foster is possibly even crazier in that than he was in this.

    And he played a crazy Boy Scout-turned-prison-inmate in an episode of My Name Is Earl that’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Brilliant stuff.

    Gah, Yuma is a good movie.

    Have you seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? Weird, but fascinating!

  4. Ohh, I like My Name is Earl. Do you remember what ep? Oh, wait, I’ll just imdb it (can I use that as a verb?) and try to see if I can find it online.

    I’ve seen parts of it, lol. They were just playing it repeatedly on the movie channel here at school, but because of my schedule I couldn’t watch it in its entirety. What I did see was pretty neat, though.

  5. I’ve been away for a while and i’m trying to get caught up here. Yuma was amazing, Ben Foster has been on my must watch list since I saw Alpha Dog, although I am slowly coming to the realization that he plays Crazy really well, and not much else. I thought his Angel was a bit too weak honestly, but, as you say it was a bit part.

    30 Days of Night was acceptable to me. I personally can’t stand Josh Hartnett, and yet he keeps getting cast in things, go figure! He’s too pretty, not enough substance. Any number of actors could have done as well if not better in that movie.

  6. Yay, you’re back! 😀

    Agreed. Angel’s a stronger character in the comics, not some timid kid like Foster interpreted him as. Quiet, sure, but not timid.

    Huh, Hartnett was in The Black Dahlia (just looked him up)? That movie was weird.


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