By JAMES MELVILLE
Hey, disembodied voice, guess what? What, James? You’ve become a reoccurring character in this column! Wow, does this mean I’ll get paid? Not likely, man. I mean, I do most of the work around here. Pretty much all of it, actually. Touché, sir. Touché.
3:10 to Yuma (2007):
The Plot: Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a struggling Arizona rancher and crippled Civil War veteran, agrees to help a posse escort notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the gallows in exchange for the money he needs to pay off debts and keep his land. As the Ben plays mind games with the posse, his loyal gang, led by the psychotic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), follow close behind.
I love Westerns, and this is one of my favorites. It’s up there with The Magnificent Seven and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for me. The former is an adaptation of The Seven Samurai starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, and the latter is a really, really good John Ford/John Wayne film. One of their best, actually. I figured I’d better explain, since I have the feeling that a lot of people on this campus aren’t fans of the genre. That’s okay, though. I’m not a fan of a lot of people on this campus.
3:10 to Yuma is, among other things, a film about an ordinary man striving to become an almost mythical figure, for ordinary reasons. A man searching for the courage to do the right thing, no matter the cost. In one of the tense scenes leading up to a climactic run through dusty streets to the train, Dan tells his son: “…you just remember that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when no one else would.”
It’s popular now to hate the myths created by classic Westerns, to disregard Lone Heroes and Golden-hearted Gunslingers as relics of an unenlightened past. We don’t want to see Good Guys and Bad Guys, we want moral ambiguity and anti-heroes. This film manages to find a middle ground between the legends we’re taught to look down upon and the harsh reality we’re supposed to crave.
At the beginning of the film, Dan is helpless. He’s being harassed by a local businessman who wants his land. His adolescent son has no respect for him, his youngest son has tuberculosis, and his wife is quickly losing faith. Dan is missing more than just a part of one of his legs; he’s lost his dignity as well. He’s interested in more than justice. He wants money, respect, and security for his family. He wants to be a man that his sons can look up to, and that his wife can rely on. His is a heroism born of desperation.
Don’t let my use of words like “myth” and “legend” throw you off. This is a film grounded firmly in reality. The characters are fully fleshed out, and smart. The writers are masters of conversation, both spoken and physical. Look at a scene with a handcuffed Ben Wade eating dinner at Dan’s ranch. Dan’s wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) sees that the outlaw is unable to cut his steak, and quietly implores her already harried husband to do it for him. Ben thanks Dan, but asks him to cut off the fat, and then the gristle. His tone is courteous, but there’s a look in his eyes that says he’s just playing with the rancher. There’s a look in Dan’s eyes, as he struggles to remain in control of the situation, that says he can only be pushed so much further.
Wade’s attempts to psych out his captors are subtle but effective. Russell Crowe plays the character as equal parts charming and devious, aided greatly by a fantastic script from writers Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, and Halstead Welles, who also wrote the 1957 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s short story.
This is a film that pays attention to its characters, treating them as real people. We get a sense that even minor roles have interesting complexities. Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk), for example, is a veterinarian drafted into the posse on the grounds that they’ll probably need a doctor. At first, he comes across as a timid man, but the film gradually reveals that he has strong moral convictions. When his sense of decency drives him to act, it’s a moment that also serves as a prelude to Dan’s eventual heroism.
That’s what Westerns have always been about. Even the ones with larger-than-life figures like John Wayne. Especially movies with John Wayne. Men and women of conviction struggling to do what they think is right.
Just because we want complexity doesn’t mean we get to write off movies that paint in broader strokes, or exist in a different context than our own. I wanted to talk about James Mangold’s beautiful use of scenery, and Marco Beltrami’s dark and evocative score, but this is more important.
I’m not asking anybody to like Westerns just because I do. All I’ll ever ask of you is to give good movies a chance. Don’t disregard great films like 3:10 to Yuma, or Stagecoach, or The Searchers, just because you’ve taken a few film classes and think you know better. Keep an open mind, and, as always, don’t be a dick.
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