With each new Western that hit the screens last fall, pundits and critics continued to discuss the death of the Western.
Not quite seeing the forest for the trees, 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, in that order, rolled into theaters, each one generating positive, sometimes wildly enthusiastic, reviews. In the 2007-2008 season, the Western was anything but dead. When the awards season comes to a close this spring, perhaps all four of these pictures will have taken home something shiny.
Although some argued if all these movies fit into the Western genre, everyone agreed that the picture that most typifies the classic historical Western is James Mangold’s remake of Delmer Daves’ 1957 character drama, 3:10 to Yuma.
In the place of the original actors Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale were cast as the outlaw Ben Wade and the struggling rancher Dan Evans.
Both pictures take their inspiration from Elmore Leonard’s short story of the same name, which started as a simple siege drama about two men, a deputy and a 21-year-old desperado. Alone together in a hotel room overlooking the quasi-mythical Arizona town of Contention, the two men play a casual psychological game while waiting for the train that will ferry the gang member to the territorial prison in Yuma.
But with each retelling, the story has become more elaborate.
In the first picture, the deputy becomes a rancher (Heflin) who has fallen on hard times and needs the reward offered to him if he escorts the bad guy. The kid-gone-wrong (Ford) is given a jump in age and an upgrade to charis-matic gang leader.
In the new film, Wade has taken another evolutionary step and is a combination of Jesse James and Butch Cassidy, a bible-studied sketch artist who has fitted his revolvers with matching black-and-silver, crucifix-embossed grips. His fight isn’t with the authorities anymore; it’s with the Old Testament. So famous is this version of Wade that the good citizens of Bisbee feel that having an outlaw of his stature in town is a step up in class.
While Wade is one step closer to cosmic villainy (on the commentary, Mangold refers to him as a supercriminal), Evans is now psychologically damaged, financially busted and physically disabled—he’s missing a foot—and his son despises him and admires Wade. The picture also hints that Evans’ wife may have known Wade as a lover some years before. When we meet Evans and his family, the local financier has just burned down his barn. Biblically, we’re talking Job.
In the story, what was at one time a simple trip from Bisbee to Contention is, in the new version, a perilous saga that introduces an Apache attack and a sequence in a railroad tunnel. All the movie needs is a cattle drive (and there’s even a bit of that) and a wagon train. The idea that newer Westerns should be more realistic or historically accurate has long sailed over the horizon, as proven by Seraphim Falls, Assassination of Jesse James and others, and this new 3:10 to Yuma is utterly fantastic in ways that an audience in the 1950s would have never bought.
But then, the Western went through some interesting changes in the 1960s when the Italians tossed realism to the wind. This picture takes advantage of some of those new liberties, but if we’re to believe the director’s commentary on the DVD, Mangold has been obsessed with making a Western, in particular this one. He’s been chewing on 3:10 to Yuma for decades, ever since his professor, the director Alexander Mackendrick, had him analyze the picture. Even Mangold’s 1997 film Copland was designed to be a modern “Western” set in suburban New Jersey. (Sylvester Stallone’s character in the movie was even named Freddy Heflin, after Van.)
Here’s the rub: in his effort to redefine and reconstruct the Western, Mangold has gone after it like an academic exercise. The picture is more like a project than a movie. While the film has much to recommend it, it also has serious drawbacks. Repeated viewings of his remake clearly show the film almost never connects on an emotional level; it’s less than the sum of its parts.
The DVD contains making-of features, a short essay on gangs of the West and a handful of deleted scenes. Mangold’s commentary track, though, is something else. Had Mangold been a Western scholar, commenting on another film, it might have been easier to bear. But as he lectures about the perils of overthinking the picture, it’s obvious that’s exactly what he did. We hear his theories about the genre, the era, the relevancy of Westerns to contemporary culture, the archetypes he’s exploring. It’s the rare commentary that makes the listener wish for less rather than more.
I can’t help but wonder what sort of narrative a director like John Ford or Howard Hawks would have provided for a DVD of Rio Bravo or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Then again, what could be more simple or eloquent than Ford’s famous line, “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.”