“Sometimes a man has to be big enough to see how small he is,” someone advises Dan Evans (Christian Bale) in James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma.
Evans is definitely that big. Exactly that big, and no bigger, which is big enough to know how small he is, but not big enough for anything else. And if he didn’t already know it, larger-than-life outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is more than man enough to drive the point home.
When Evans’ frightened wife Alice (Gretchen Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page) pleads with her husband not to take on the dangerous job of escorting the captured Wade to Contention City to put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma to face justice, she protests that no one will think less of him. His plaintive reply: “No one can think less of me.”
The original 1957 3:10 to Yuma, based on an Elmore Leonard short story, is a mature, suspenseful duel of character between two flawed but human characters. In that film, Wade is a virile, charismatic rogue with more than a touch of tarnished honor; Evans, a struggling rancher seeking his own ebbing sense of self-worth, along with a much-needed $200 reward, by bringing the outlaw to justice. In the end, the rancher may or may not be entirely up to the overwhelming task, but he has won his self-respect and the respect of his his wife, and even, significantly, of the outlaw, which makes a crucial difference.
The remake, directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Kate and Leopold) follows closely in the first film’s footsteps, except for all the business about honor, recovered self-worth and justice, which are replaced here with steady mayhem and general lawlessness.
There’s no spiritual duel, no earned respect and debt of honor. There are just a broken man and a capricious one: one harboring hopeless dreams of being a man again in the eyes of his wife and son but no hope of achieving it; the other larger than life, an implacable force of nature able to kill men and seduce women essentially at will, who never has any reason to honor or respect the other man, but could conceivably take pity on him and go along with him, if it strikes his fancy.
In Mangold’s retelling, Evans is thoroughly emasculated, deprived of every shred of dignity and accomplishment. He’s literally crippled, with a wooden leg in memory of his Civil War service — a handicap that might enhance the significance of his achievement, if he achieved anything. Yet at every turn he is unable to complete the tasks sets for himself. His teenaged son William (Logan Lerman, Hoot) despises his father’s weakness and inadequacy, and redemption eludes poor, pathetic Evans pretty much right to the end.
Even the ambiguous, proud/stubborn/stupid sense of obligation that drove Evans in the original, like Gary Cooper in the strikingly similar High Noon, to stick to his guns even when abandoned by every ally and facing impossible odds, has been notably attenuated. In the original, Evans is ultimately offered the $200 reward whether or not he goes through with braving the guns of Wade’s waiting gang to get their boss onto the 3:10 train. Evans’ wife even shows up in the original and begs Evans not to attempt it, saying that he has nothing to prove. Thus, the deciding factor is ultimately Evan’s own sense of duty and self-respect.
In the new version, when Evans is offered the $200 reward even if he backs down, he counters with a demand of $1000 for his family if he continues — the same figure that Wade offered him as a payoff to let him go — as well as additional guarantees regarding his family’s well-being. This gives him a purely practical motivation: Even if he dies, he will be a better provider in death than he ever was in life.
Perhaps the filmmakers feel that that stubborn Cooper-esque pride/duty ethic wouldn’t fly with today’s audiences; perhaps they are even right. Perhaps today’s audiences are even right about the ethic itself. None of this, though, amounts to a comparable moral victory for this film’s Evans.
If there is any moral victory, it is only that Evans would rather die and have the stage line’s $1000 go to his family than take the $1000 payoff Wade offers for letting him go — and even this is diminished by giving him a speech in which he objects to the practical difficulties of having to explain such a sudden increase in wealth.
Strangely, the $1000 payoff Evans refuses is only a tenth of the final payoff offer in the original. The remake dials up everything else; why does it dial down the money Evans refuses to let Wade go? Is it because the filmmakers find it implausible that their hero would have the moral fiber to walk away from $10,000, as his counterpart did in 1957? Or is it only that they don’t think Wade would offer that much for a bloodless resolution to the situation when he can solve it for free by letting his gang members kill Evans?
If the latter, once again, they’re probably right. Wade in the original was a remarkably civilized, courteous sort of outlaw who merely wanted to rob stagecoaches without anybody getting hurt, if he could possibly avoid it. In the remake, Wade is only a parody of civility; both he and his gang are far more savage and lawless, repeatedly murdering helpless prisoners and men who have surrendered and laid down weapons or cooperated with their captors.
Just as the filmmakers systematically weaken and shortchange Evans, at every turn they enhance and glorify Wade’s manly prowess. Even as a prisoner, Wade effortlessly kills two of his escorts on the way to Contention, one for mocking him and the other for insulting his mother. I guess it counts for something that Evans never gives Wade a reason to kill him, and Wade never does. On the other hand, in the original Evans is able to repulse an abortive escape attempt by Wade, which would never happen here; if this Wade wanted to kill this Evans and escape, he would just do it.
More crucially, this Evans is never given the chance to save Wade’s life, as he does in a crucial scene in the original. I’m pretty sure this is the only major plot point from the original that’s left out of the remake (which otherwise adds material but leaves out none of the key events of the original), so the omission seems significant, even deliberate.
In both films Wade beds a pretty barmaid within minutes of meeting her, and insidiously, subtly flirts with Evans’s wife Alice as a prisoner at an awkward supper at the Evans homestead. Yet the barmaid’s promiscuity is given more context in the original (the film pointedly observes that there are only older men in the podunk town, and the big-city barmaid is lonely and bored), while Wade’s effect on Alice is notably more pronounced here.
The 1957 film uncomfortably implied that by some primal measures Wade was more man than Evans — yet the distance between them was close enough that Evans could still contend with Wade, at least as an underdog. Here, there’s never any question of a contest. Evans’s son William believes himself more man than his father, and is right. In the end, the climax is not a vindicated underdog’s moral example to his sons, but a son’s — and Wade’s — pitying gift to a downtrodden loser.
The original believed that a man was a man whether he was an outlaw or a law-abiding citizen, and core human and social values applied to all. The remake sees men as either wolves or sheep — those who take what they want if they choose, and those who are the helpless victims of their caprice and whims.
Not just Wade and his gang, but pretty much the whole world is just a lot nastier in this film. It’s not enough that Evans can’t get financial help from his neighbors to weather six more months of drought, as in the original; now Evans’s ranch is deliberately sabotaged by enemies who dam up his water and burn his barn to the ground. It’s not enough that Evans’ allies in Contention all walk away when they realize how steep the odds are; in this version Wade’s gang is actually able to recruit half the town to try to kill Evans by offering a $200 bounty. When they meet Indians, they’re bloodthirsty fighters; when they run into a railroad crew blasting a path for the transcontinental railroad, they’re lawless, violent men who seize Wade and torture him, and Evans’ party must wage a fierce battle to take custody of the outlaw again. (There’s a chase scene and a big explosion, and the railroad workers shoot at them as they flee.)
As if sealing their film’s alienation from traditional morality, the filmmakers add an exhausted element of twisted religious themes. Wade now quotes from the Bible, particularly Proverbs, mocks the moral blind spots and hypocrisies of his law-abiding captors, and carries a revolver nicknamed “the Hand of God” with a crucifix on the handle. Meanwhile, Evans complains, “I’ve been standing on one leg for three years waiting for God to do me a favor, and He ain’t listening.” There’s also a hint of implicit homoeroticism in the devotion to Wade of psychotic sidekick Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, X3) — pointedly referred to in his first scene as “Princess” by a defiant victim. (Another “gay ‘cowboy’ ”; also, another gay psycho killer.)
Incidentally, among the new film’s original conceits is Wade’s propensity for sketching; subjects include the barmaid (who poses nude in bed after sex) and Wade’s captor Evans. Is this by way of evoking another larger-than-life movie killer who was also an artist, Hannibal Lecter? If so, the filmmakers may not adequately have appreciated one of the key factors in the success of The Silence of the Lambs: The film isn’t about Hannibal Lecter, but Clarice Starling; and while Clarice is out of her depth with Lecter, she does well enough for herself not to come off as a pathetic loser. That would have been as uninteresting to Lecter as it would to audiences.
It’s hard to believe that director Mangold, whose direction and compositions I freely acknowledge would in a more balanced review have been praised before now, professes a lifelong love of 3:10 to Yuma, and in particular paid homage to Dan Evans in his film Cop Land by naming the protagonist after actor Van Helflin (who played Evans in the original). The screenplay by writing partners Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (Catch That Kid, 2 Fast 2 Furious) retains much of the original dialogue — so much that late screenwriter Halsted Welles, who adapted the original, is credited in the remake.
The filmmakers have a right, of course, to depart from their source material in whatever way they see fit; the original can only be a point of comparison, not a canonical standard. That the remake essentially rapes the first film may be an outrage to fans, but it isn’t strictly what makes the new 3:10 to Yuma an odious film. Still, the warping of the original film’s moral vision and the bizarre prospect of filmmakers seeking to honor a classic while profaning what it stood for makes for a more intriguing story than the nihilism and anarchy of another post-everything Western.
Although not as nerve-wracking as High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma is even more claustrophobic — the heart of the film is the verbal sparring between Evans and Wade in a second-story hotel room — and the two-character drama is more intriguing than High Noon’s protagonist standing alone.
A mounting sense of dread and inevitability hangs over Fred Zinnemann’s grim, downbeat Western classic High Noon, a black-and-white anti-spectacle about an aging lawman who receives a series of nasty shocks on the day he tries to hang up his gunbelt and begin a new life.
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Steven D. Greydanus is a dumb ass writer… He doesn’t even know how to write. 3:10 to Yuma is the best western I have ever seen. You need to let Steven D. Greydanus go.
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My roommate and I had a good time looking over your amazingly detailed review of 3:10 to Yuma a few nights ago. We both thought more highly of the film than you did, but appreciated your criticisms and clarifications. The thing I value most about your reviews is your rigorous attention to detail, and it’s undeniably fun to follow your train of thought as it careens toward (often) unforeseen conclusions. Thanks for your honesty and conviction. (You could bump up the moral–spiritual rating a couple of notches, since the film isn’t nearly as injurious as you make it out to be. :) )
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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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.