Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #5

Re: 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Let me preface my remarks by stating that I’ve been reading your reviews for years, and I have a very high regard for you as both a critic and a judge of morality. Also, I have to say that I very rarely write in comment boxes.

That being said, I now to vehemently object to your minus-3 rating to 3:10 to Yuma — not only because I think it is dead wrong, but because it will influence Catholics to not go and see this strongly moral film, which in turn may discourage Hollywood from making more.

Your main beef with the film seems to come from the fact that you are a big fan of the 1957 version of this film, and that this version “rapes the original”. That may be true, but I think you’ve made a classic film critic mistake of basing your view of the film on things outside of the film itself — of writing a review for yourself rather than for the readers, most of whom have not seen the original on which you base your moral judgment.

I think the film makes a very powerful case for doing the right thing in difficult circumstances. I think it epitomizes the quote from Chesterton: “…morals are not useless; nor are they institutions. They are passions” (Platitudes Undone, p. 35).

You object to Evans being a “broken man” and a “loser”. How, exactly, does this make him less of a moral example? You also point out that his motives are mixed. So what? That just makes him human. And it doesn’t change the fact that he gives his life to both do the right thing, and to protect his family — now, that’s a message that men these days desperately need to hear.

In the course of the film I saw two men who ultimately do the right thing, even as external imperatives are ruthlessly stripped away, and even at the cost of both their lives (althought there’s some ambiguity as to Wade — he may escape again).

Both men go through a purging experience through the course of the film. Evans is able to infuse in his son a moral example — young William starts out by admiring Wade and mocking his father, but in the end sees good and evil in a much clearer way, and sees his father not as a sucker or an idiot, but as a hero. And Evans knows that his son has absorbed the lessons he has been trying to give — “You got the best parts of me,” he says in their last meeting.

Wade, on the other hands, ends up by expunging the worst parts of himself, by using all of his lethal skill in an ruthlessly moral act — destroying the evil men who have destroyed Evans and countless others. Then he voluntarily gets on the train to accept his punishment (presumedly). This would have been unthinkable to the character at the beginning movie.

I would have given at least a plus-2 on the moral scale. But you gave it a minus-3 rating, between problematic and poison, which is simply unbelievable to me, since it will encourage your readers to avoid it like the plague. I certainly wouldn’t have rented it if I had read your review first, but now (sadly) I am glad that I didn’t. A film should be morally rated on its own merits, and not how it measures up to another film. Sorry, but I think you really called this wrong.

Let me end by again saying that my opinion of your judgment in this case in an anomaly. I usually agree with you, and I think you are going great work, and I’d like to encourage you to do even more reviews (as long as they’re reviews of the movie, and not comparison pieces).

Thanks for one of the most thoughtful and certainly longest dissenting views I’ve ever received. I wish I had space to print your entire letter in my mail column.

I’m certainly aware that I am solidly in the minority on the new 3:10 to Yuma. And it’s certainly true that different viewers will see different things in any film. I don’t gainsay your experience of the film — but I stand a hundred and ten percent by mine, even if like Dan Evans I’m alone in what seems a hopeless cause.

Which I’m not, of course. Here’s Mark Steyn: “There’s no moral universe, just a rotten state in which wickedness and violence are tempered only by degrees of politically correct squeamishness.”

There is only one point on which I will contradict you. While I can’t deny that my appreciation for the original (which I saw for the first time a week or so earlier) colored my response to the remake, it is absolutely not the case that my “main beef” with the remake is that it “rapes the original.” In fact, I explicitly denied this in the very passage you cite: I affirmed the filmmakers’ right “to depart from their source material in whatever way they see fit,” and specifically stated that the “rape” of the original “may be an outrage to fans, but it isn’t strictly what makes the new 3:10 to Yuma an odious film.”

I’ve seen too many adaptations with too many different relationships to the source material (known and unknown, known beforehand and known afterwards, liked and disliked, well adapted and poorly adapted, etc.) to make comparisons with the source material the basis for my take on nearly any film. Even when for literary reasons I find it helpful to discuss the comparisons at length in my review, my judgment of the film in itself stands above these questions. That is why, for example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe rates a B-plus in spite of my extensive critique of its failings as an adaptation.

No, my loathing of 3:10 to Yuma is on the merits of the film, which I find amoral and nihilistic. The movie I saw presented Wade as a kind of Nietzchean Ubermensch, a strong man who does what he wants to because he can and because that’s how he wants it, and that’s who he is right up to the end.

It isn’t (I submit) for moralistic reasons that Wade mows down his own gang. It’s because he, Ben Wade, had chosen to have pity on the loser Dan Evans and to allow Dan to get him to the train and look good in front of his son, and Ben Wade gets to do what he wants. But this time he doesn’t, because Dan is gunned down by Wade’s psycho gang members, messing up Wade’s plan to have pity on Dan. And so in his wrath he kills them all, because HIS plan was to get on the train and make Dan look good in front of his son, and he gets to do what he wants, and they messed that up.

And then he gets on the train, because he had decided to, darn it — although you may recall that as the train pulls away, Wade whistles up his horse, who trots after the train. The clear implication, I think, is that Wade only rides the train out of sight, and then hops OFF the train onto the horse and rides off, presumably to rob more stagecoaches and bed more barmaids, because the getting on the train thing was only for the benefit of Evans’ son. If you saw something different, let me know.

I’m willing to grant that a film may have a broken loser who is nevertheless a serious moral example. On the other hand, such a film may also tacitly imply that morality is for losers. Here is a question worth considering: At the end of the day, is it better to be (or to have been) Dan Evans or Ben Wade? The faith you and I both brought to the theater tells us one thing. But what’s the movie’s answer? On that, perhaps, hangs the film’s moral orientation.

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