[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]
In the late 1960s, Polish national and California transplant Czeslaw Milosz wrote an insightful little essay called “On the Western,” where he argued that the most quintessentially American cinematic genre had yet to truly express the full terror of its subject and setting:
Besides the skillful shot, the hand barely leaving the hip, there is also the wound which might fester for weeks on end, the fever, the stink of the sweat-drenched body, the bed of filthy rags, the urine, the excrement, but this the Western never shows. One is not supposed to think past the colorful costumes to tormenting lice itch, feet rubbed bloody, all the misery of men’s and women’s bodies thrown together, trying to survive when the rules they had learned no longer counted for much.
“On the Western” was published in book form the same year that Sam Peckinpah released The Wild Bunch, thus irreversibly changing the visual language with which westerns address the very horrors that Milosz enumerated. Seven years earlier, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance had made the entire concept of traditional western heroism seem hopelessly ambiguous, while subtly shifting the genre’s central focus to examinations of people living precisely “when the rules they had learned no longer counted for much.” A decade of revisionist expansions followed Milosz’s essay, and by 1985, when the cinematic genre seemed all but spent, two novels—Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove—came along to close the coffin lid. Both represent a kind of western-to-end-all-westerns, the former projecting Peckinpah violence on a bibilical scale and the latter stretching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s elegiac tone into a panorama worthy of the 19th-century Russians.
Their influence has been prodigious; nowadays, with few exceptions, the western exists to remind us of the grimness and loss it once ignored. The historical ones (Unforgiven, There Will Be Blood, The Proposition) are awash in blood-matted facial hair and sun-baked sadism, while the contemporary stories (No Country for Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the underrated Down in the Valley) show us a landscape of strip malls and fast food restaurants that nevertheless hosts a continuing tradition of lawlessness and existential terror.
So, were Milosz alive, would he thus prefer the 1957 or 2007 versions of 3:10 to Yuma? The original, a well-made film from the time when High Noon seemed tough, boasts beautiful black-and-white cinematography and long stretches of near-silence; if nothing else, it captures the disorienting stillness of the American West, even if its cattle-rancher protagonist (Van Heflin, he of the face like mashed potatoes) seems impeccably groomed for his time and place. And then there’s James Mangold’s film, a fabulous movie in many ways, even if an early shootout with a carbine machine gun and exploding horses seems a little Die Hard-ish for the setting. The rest of the film follows suit, outfitting a fairly simple story with loads of gristle, viscera, sexual menace, and of course, beards. We’re a long way from the days when grim themes might be spelled out by Frankie Laine:
Heflin’s character, Dan Evans (Christian Bale in the new version), is a dirt-poor man with children and a wife to feed, so he takes a dangerous job escorting irascible villain Ben Wade (Glenn Ford, then Russell Crowe) to the unimprovably named town of Contention, AZ. There, if all goes well, the bad man is to catch the title train. In 1957, save for a few hiccups, all goes well. The drought even ends. In 2007, everything turns to shit, a young man’s idealism is shattered, dozens die, and the last shot shows cosmic evil gearing up for one more go-round, Blood Meridian¬-style.
The older 3:10 to Yuma harkens back to a time when westerns were westerns, with their own assumed moral systems and thematic boilerplate. It’s a tense little film with a proto-Mamet third act set entirely in a small hotel room, but like all genre storytelling, it’s ultimately, soothingly familiar. The new 3:10 to Yuma, however, is a western that, like most of its peers, knows other languages: It can bleed and brood like Se7en, burst into flame like Con Air, and hug an Anthony Mann landscape with Scorsesean intensity. I can’t dispute that this new approach is a nominally more accurate portrayal of Old Western existence, but it seems debatable that this portrayal is more true.
We can assume, for instance, that a man of Ben Wade’s ill repute would likely carry Crowe’s inscrutable glare rather than Glenn Ford’s car-salesman slickness. But Crowe’s character leans just far enough into Hannibal Lecter territory that he ceases to feel real in any meaningful way. Don’t blame Crowe, who’s as focused and reined-in as I’ve ever seen him; but the new script simply dials up the original character’s violent intensity without establishing a more credible context for his behavior.
The Dan Evans character makes a more beneficial transition. Here, Evans has a wooden leg and a nasty limp; he’s gaunt and evasive rather than pudgy and stoic; and his oldest son is very nearly seduced by Wade’s outlaw behavior in clear rebellion of Evans’s own masculine ineffectuality. We expect, as in the first film, to grow more enamored and respectful of this character as the story progresses, but Bale manages to make him more pitiful with each heroic gesture.
The result is thematically complex to a degree that recalls, if not exactly rivals, John Ford’s work, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But it’s all extremely loud, literally and figuratively. It lacks those devastating domestic and community scenes that were Ford’s emotional bread and butter, and draws the Old West in heavier strokes than the already intense material requires.
In his litany of overlooked images, Milosz was really acknowledging that the half-settled American West is altogether more foreign to modern audiences than traditional film grammar allows. Ed Harris’s recent Appaloosa was largely forgettable, but I appreciated the filmmaker’s devotion to that endangered subgenre, the Charming Western. As embodied by Howard Hawks’s collaborations with John Wayne, these are films that luxuriate in the West’s open air and big skies. They move at their own slow trot and enforce a rhythm on the viewer. They are immersive, in other words, and thus in their way are truer to the West’s foreignness than even the violent recreations that followed. The Mangold 3:10 to Yuma has all the right costumes and all the right sound editing, but it never feels strange. It could use more sky and less calculated pessimism. Then it might feel suitably epic for the material, more so than your average horror movie. The 1957 film might be pure hokum, but at least it feels like the product of men who really knew how to ride their horses.
John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.