3:10 to Yuma: Russell Crowe and Christian Bale add strength and depth to this gritty and gripping adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Western thriller

3:10 to Yuma (2007) is the second film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s eponymous short story. This tense, psychological Western thriller is directed by James Mangold and stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in lead roles.

Eminent writer Elmore Leonard has a rather strange relationship with Hollywood. On one hand, more than 25 of his works has been adapted for movies or Television; on the other hand, a lot of his most famous novels, some of which he himself tried to adapt for the big screen fell apart at the last moment- leaving him bitter about the whole movie business. One of the famous (or infamous) one involves his experiences with Dustin Hoffman while adapting his 1980s crime novel LaBrava. After working on that film for a long time, and trying his best to accommodate all of Hoffman’s suggestions, the project fell apart when Hoffman quit at the last moment due to a disagreement with the producers. But the extraordinary writer that he is, he channeled his bitter experience of working with Hoffman into writing one of his most successful novels, Get Shorty; in which the character of the short, pretentious and conceited movie-star Martin Weir was based on Hoffman; and ironically, “Get Shorty” was made into a very successful movie. Leonard is also one of the lucky few who saw the same story (of his) being adapted into a movie, not once, but twice in his lifetime. The most important and widely acclaimed one is the adaptations of his short story “3:10 to Yuma” that he wrote in 1953 for the Dime Western Magazine. It’s a story that lasts just a few pages in which a Deputy (in 1880s Arizona) named Paul Scallen is escorting an outlaw, Jimmy Kidd, to the town called contention – from where they can board the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. The whole story takes place in about an hour’s time in which Scallen watches over Kidd in a hotel room, even as the hotel is surrounded by Kidd’s gang members, lead by Charlie Prince, who are determined to stop Scallen from taking the Kidd to Yuma. As they wait in the hotel, Kidd and Scallen strikes up a conversation in which Kidd does his best to entice Scallen in letting him go, but Scallen remains steadfast in doing his duty. The story ends with Scallen successfully fighting off Prince and his men, and boarding the train to Yuma with Kidd in tow.

It’s more than obvious that this short story cannot constitute an entire movie; at best this could form a third act of a movie. Not that films have not been made out of events that take place in an hour- Fred Zinnemann’s classic Western, “High Noon” was such a film. 3:10 to Yuma bears a more than passing resemblance to “High Noon”; in that film, the lawman was waiting for the dreaded outlaw to arrive by the noon train, while here, the lawman is waiting for the train to arrive so that he can transport the dreaded outlaw to prison. “3:10 to Yuma” was first adapted to the big screen by director Delmer Daves in 1957. There have been legendary stories of how Hollywood destroys great stories\novels while adapting them to the big screen, but “3:10 to Yuma” is one of those cases where the screen adaptation is much better, and more fleshed out than the source material. In the film version, the character of Paul Scallen is changed to Dan Evans (played by Van Heflin), while Jimmy Kidd is changed to Ben Wade(Glenn Ford). Evans is not a lawman, he’s a rancher going through a tough time due to drought, and he volunteers to be a deputy and escort Wade to Yuma prison for a sum of $200 that will allow him to save his ranch. The film builds an elaborate backstory where we see Wade and Evans meet for the first time; how Wade is captured; and how Evans and the rest of the deputies manages to take him to Contention evading Wade’s gang. Wade’s character is also transformed from being a kid in his 20s to a very mature, charismatic, charming and ruthless leader of outlaws. The film’s first act deals with the stagecoach robbery and the apprehending of Wade; the second act involves getting Wade from the town of Bisbee to Evans’ ranch, and then to contention; and third act is pretty much Leonard’s story- with the long wait in the hotel and the final fight to the train. The 1957 film is widely acclaimed for the performances of Heflin and Ford, and the powerful direction of Daves, who weaves a tight psychological thriller within its Western template involving a battle of wills between a broken-down rancher and the charming outlaw.

The 2007 version, directed by Joseph Mangold, is almost a direct remake of the 1957 version, as well as an expanded version of the themes depicted in the film. It’s bigger, grittier and a more violent film, clocking in at 2hrs as opposed to the earlier version which was 90 minutes long. It’s one of those remakes that’s better than the original. The first two acts of the 1957 film is clubbed together to form the first act of this film, while the third act of the two films remain pretty much the same. This new version adds an extended second act featuring the journey from Evans’ ranch to Contention- this is completely absent in the earlier version. Evans’ characterization is deepened here by making him a Civil War vet whose one leg is crippled. The opening of the two films is also different, while the old one opens with Wade robbing the stagecoach, here the film opens with Dan Evans'(Christian Bale) barn being torched by Glen Hollander’s men- Evans owes Hollander money, and his men threaten Evans that his house will be torched next if he did not pay back the money soon. The fire in the barn scares off Evans’ cattle, and the next day Evans, along with his sons William(Logan Lerman) and Mark, goes looking for them. But to Evans’ chagrin, he sees outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his gang using his cattle to block the road and ambush a stagecoach staffed by Pinkerton agents. The stagecoach is carrying the railroad’s payroll, and it is armor-plated and outfitted with a Gatling gun. The stagecoach robbery sequence in this film is done on a much bigger scale and more elaborate than seen in the old version. As Wade’s outfit massacres the guards and loots the upended stage, Wade discovers Evans and his two sons watching from the hills. Wade and his sadistic right-hand man, Charlie Prince(Ben Foster) rides up to confront Evans. But realizing that Evans (and his children) poses no threat, Wade takes their horses and tells Evans that he will leave them tied up on the road to the town of Bisbee.

The lone survivor of the stagecoach robbery\massacre is Byron McElroy(Peter Fonda), a Pinkerton  agent who’s Wade’s old nemesis. Wade, a sadistic sociopath, intentionally left him alive, after Prince plugged him in the gut. McElroy is found by Evans and his sons, and they take him along with them to Bisbee. Meanwhile, Wade and his men have already arrived in Bisbee to celebrate their victory and divide up the loot. After the celebrations, Wade’s gang departs while a cocky Wade stays behind to romance a barmaid. Realizing that Wade is still in Bisbee, the Marshal along with Evans, concocts a plan to arrest him. Evans confronts Wade and ask him to compensate him for his loss of cattle- which were killed while Wade was robbing the bank. Wade, who has taken a liking to this impoverished, but courageous family man, complies to each and every one of Evans’ demand, but what Evans is doing is delaying Wade just enough for the lawmen to surround the outlaw and arrest him. Wade is taken by surprise when he’s arrested; he didn’t expect the poor rancher to trick him, but he regains his cools self soon; he knows the Prince and his men will free him soon. And as he expected, as the party is leaving the town with Wade, Charlie Prince ambushes them and kills two lawmen. The railroad’s representative, Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), enlists McElroy, Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk), Tucker (Kevin Durand)- Hollander’s henchman who burnt down Evans’ barn, and Evans to deliver Wade to Contention, where Wade will be put on the 3:10 P.M. train to Yuma Territorial Prison. Evans requests a $200 fee to deliver Wade for transport, which Butterfield accepts. Realizing that they cannot outrun Prince and his gang, McElroy, on reaching Evans’ ranch, switches Wade with one of his men- Wade is taken to Evans’s house, while the wagon proceeds forward giving the impression to Wade’s gang members that Wade is still in the wagon. But after Prince and his men catches up and ambushes the wagon, they realize that Wade has been taken to Contention, so they change course and head for that town.

After spending a tense night at Evans’ house, Evans and the rest of the enlisted men leave with Wade for Contention. Along the journey, the cunning Wade manages to overpower and kill both McElroy and Tucker. Later, when the party comes under an Apache attack, Wade use this to his advantage and manage to escape. But Wade’s is freedom is short-lived, as he’s soon captured at a railroad construction site by the foreman- who lost his brother in one of Wade’s robberies and, as revenge, intends to torture Wade to death. Soon, Evans and his men arrive at the site demanding release of Wade, but the Foreman’s refusal leads to a gunfight; in which Evans recaptures Wade, but Doc Potter is killed in the process. The remaining men get to Contention without any further causalities. But they still have a few hours to kill before the train arrive, and this is when Wade, who has been trying to get into Evans’ head all along, makes his own counter offer for his safe release- $1000 for letting him go free, and saving Evans’ life from his gang members. Evans is unmoved by the offer. By this time, Charlie Price and his men have surrounded the hotel in which Evans and Wade are staying. Price makes a stunning offer to the Contention townsfolk: $200 each for any man who would kill the deputies guarding Wade. Seeing the whole town turning against them, everyone of the enlistment men, except Evans, resigns. Evans decides to push on alone; he demands that Butterfield- who has also abandoned him- pay his family $1000, as well as to take his son, William- who had joined the enlisted man along the journey- safely back home. Butterfield agrees to both. Come time for the arrival of the train, and Evans escorts Wade out of the hotel. From hereon it’s an all out battle between Evans and everyone else in town, as film builds towards an explosive and unexpected climax.

“3:10 to Yuma” is director James Mangold’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated “Walk the Line”- for which Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar. Mangold has made movies across several genres- crime thrillers, social dramas, musical biopics and comic-book adaptations, but this film is closer to the cop-drama, “Copland” he made in 1997 with Sylvester Stallone: that was a sort of modern-era Western, where a meek and handicapped small-town Sheriff finds the strength and determination to turn against the powerful criminals in his territory. “3:10 to Yuma” is a brilliant fusion of the traditional Western of yore and the modern Western that probes deeply into the psychology of its characters. The film offers all the elements that we expect from a well made traditional Western: noble good guys, totally evil bad guys, trigger-happy youngsters, gunfights galore, lengthy horseback rides through breathtaking Western landscapes, fights with Indians, conversations around campfires, Railroad construction, Chinese laborers, stagecoach robberies, marginalized women characters and steam trains. But since its made with a modern sensibility, the characters, especially the two lead protagonists, are more than mere archetypes. The protagonist is still the noble hero, but there are multiple layers to his characterization where he comes across as weak and conflicted, while the antagonist displays elements of humanity and compassion. Despite the abundance of gunfights and action scenes, the main battle in this film is between the ideology of these two contrasting men, who, over the course of the film learns that they have far too much in common than it appears from outside. The film succeeds in being an intense ‘character study,’ as well as a tightly-wound, nerve-racking thriller within its Western template. Since this is a tautly constructed ‘character piece,’ rather than just a regular Western ‘shoot-’em-up,’ it has a tremendous amount of dialogue (something that’s unusual for a ‘Western’), but the film never loses momentum on account of this. In creating a mythic, as well as a searing Western setting, Mangold is helped immensely by Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography and Marco Beltrami’s brilliantly atmospheric score. The score, more than anything else, sets the mood of the thriller; it’s not the typical lush, sweeping Western score, but more moody and ominous. Papamichael’s cinematography mixes classic wide panoramic shots of colorful landscapes with the more modern hand-held, frenetic camerawork to give urgency to the drama. It’s truly a stunning visual achievement, which makes us long for the beauty of those majestic landscapes, as well as makes us terrified of all the grime, heat and dust.

But ultimately, like all great westerns, the film is about- what John Wayne proudly proclaimed in “Hondo”: the ‘measure of a man’. The film grapples with questions like: how far a man is willing to go to provide for his family; how far will he go to create a honorable legacy for his children; how much can an ordinary man hold out and continue doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds; and finally, how much blood and money separates the good from the evil, at what price a good man can be tempted to become evil and vice versa. And for analysis, we are given two models of masculinity. The ruthless, amoral and charming Ben Wade is an outlaw who takes what he wants, when he wants- he’s a man totally in control of his destiny, and is unafraid of either god-made laws or man-made laws. Wade’s prostitute mother abandoned him at a railroad station when he was a kid- before she left him, his mother told him a to read the bible from cover to cover, and he did that for three days before he realized that he has been abandoned. So, nothing in the ‘Holy Book’ holds any meaning for him. He lives by his own rules, and tends to look down on others who adhere to social norms. But still, there is something ‘honorable’ about him, unlike the rotten bunch he’s leading, and he seems to exist in a space apart from the rest; and he likes drawing things- whatever catches his fancy at that moment, birds, animals or humans.

Dan Evans, on other hand, is a man who’s kicked around by destiny. He’s a civil-war hero who saw no action in the war, and he lost his leg when one of his comrades accidentally fired into his foot- for which he got $200 from the government. With that money he brought the ranch and started raising a family, consisting of his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and the the two sons. But the severe drought has knocked out his ranch, and now he finds himself in debt for (ironically) the same $200 that he got for his foot. And as all family men are forced to be, he’s a coward: he refuse to strike back at the people who burnt his barn, he meekly complies when Wade orders him to give up his horse; all this making him a weakling in the eyes of his son, who starts hero-worshipping Wade (some elements of “The Magnificent Seven” here). Evans can’t provide for his family in keeping with heir needs, which means that his wife is forever unhappy with him; and he himself has begun to doubt that he is much less a man than he imagined himself to be. Evans is desperate to prove his wife, his son and himself wrong by undertaking a perilous mission that nobody else around would. Even if he dies in this mission, he succeeds in leaving a rich legacy for his children- of his courage and integrity. That’s what is driving him, more than the ambition to save the ranch. This explains why he never gives in to any of Wade’s enticing offers, and never gives up the mission even when he’s all alone. When Wade and Evans starts looking deeply into each other hearts, each finds something they want. For Wade, it’s Evans’ loyalty and love for his family, and his determination to leave a rich legacy for his children; this stands in contrast to his own abandonment by his parents. For Evans, who’s besieged from all sides, it’s Wade’s ability to be a man’s man and control his destiny. In the end, it’s the meek Evans’s integrity, determination and moral strength that wins out: instead of Wade turning Evans around, the opposite happens.

To make these compelling themes and characters come alive, we need great actors, and the film is blessed to have Russell Crowe and Christian Bale playing the protagonists. Crowe effectively uses his physicality, his charisma, and subtlety as a performer in brilliantly embodying the smoothness and ruthlessness of Ben Wade, while Bale infuses his role as a beleaguered rancher and Civil War veteran with just the right mix of pathos and dignity. Of course, Crowe has the flashier part, and he’s quite electrifying in every scene he’s in, but Bale is a talented enough to hold his own, and the scenes in which the two go head to head are truly explosive. Since both are modern actors, they delve deep into the psyche of the characters, as well as their environment, to create characters that are very true-to-life, but also mythic- keeping in with traditional Western aesthetic. (Seriously, who would have thought that an Australian and a Brit would make such compelling ‘Western’ heroes). The film also features some first-rate supporting performances, most notably from Peter Fonda as the aging gunslinger (in the role, he reminds me a little bit of his father Henry Fonda); and Logan Lerman as Bale’s headstrong son, William. The film is as much a coming-of-age story of William as anything else: From an arrogant kid, who looks down on his father and is attracted to the trigger-happy amorality of Wade, he eventually recognizes his father as the hero he is. At end he manages to get rid of his violent tendencies, and becomes the mature man who will be heading the family and running the ranch in the absence of his father. But the true scene-stealer of the film is Ben Foster. He’s simply amazing as “Charlie Prince”, the vicious, super heroic gunslinger, whose devotion to Wade borders on the homoerotic. I thought this would have been a breakout performance for Foster- something like “Thelma and Louise” was for Brad Pitt- and he would go on to become a major star. But that didn’t happen; maybe due to the lack of commercial success of this film. The film was critically well received, but it was dumped into the theaters in September by the distributors, which i believe hurt its chances at the box office. The film received richly deserved Oscar nominations for its score and sound, but i fell it deserved more- Crowe, Bale and Foster all deserved nominations. But never mind, “3:10 to Yuma” is still a superb Western- beautifully mounted and brilliantly acted.


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