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What I Like About 3:10 to Yuma

I first saw 3:10 to Yuma last year when it came out in theaters and enjoyed it enough to rewatch it tonight on DVD. A remake of a 1957 Western (which I haven’t seen), it is the story of a poor rancher, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) who signs on with a spontaneously-formed posse to escort wily, ruthless outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the town of Contention in order to put him on a train to Yuma, where he will spend time in prison. The mission is complicated by Wade’s gang, goaded on by half-crazy murderer Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), who is determined to rescue his boss.

There are four things I like about 3:10 to Yuma. First, it has an outstanding ensemble cast, led, of course, by Bale and Crowe. I find it ironically amusing (though, naturally, far from unheard of) that this western, that most quintessentially American of film genres, has two foreign actors, one from Australia and the other from the UK, playing the leading roles. The two are perfect together, matching talented performances that are a pleasure to watch. A hero that is as interesting as the villain can be rare, and Bale accomplishes the task beautifully (as he often has before).

There is great support, as well, not only from the strangely magnetic Foster, but also by Peter Fonda as the gruff, veteran Pinkerton agent who has matched wits with Wade before. Then there is Alan Tudyk as the small-town horse doctor who finds himself in over his head, Gretchen Mol as Evans’ long-suffering wife, and especially Logan Lerman as Evans’ son William, a pivotal character who I’ll discuss more later. There are even some notable small roles, including Luke Wilson in what amounts to little more than a cameo.

Second, the movie is a well-crafted story of action, adventure and suspense that makes full use of the genre conventions rather than seeming limited by them. The guiding idea behind the story is simplicity itself, and the execution of that idea is top-notch. The characters are established quickly and effectively, and there is a rip-roaring stagecoach hold-up sequence early in the film that sets the stage. The journey to Yuma has plenty of quieter moments of character exploration, which is where the heart of the movie is, but they are balanced with some great action, particularly the rescue and chase in the railroad camp. Despite the excitement of the action, though, none of these scenes makes the mistake of outshining the climax.

Third, and best of all, are the ideas that 3:10 to Yuma explores; the “heart of the movie” I mentioned. As a western, the movie is populated by iconic figures, hero and villain, but the two are not as clearly delineated as in more traditional westerns. Shades of gray are hardly something new, even in this genre, but 3:10 to Yuma goes beyond a mere statement that people in real life are often more complex than shallow avatars of good or evil and delves into questions of what drives these two particular men to act as they do.

Wade is a cold-blooded killer who describes himself as “rotten as hell.” He kills a number of men on-screen without thinking twice about it. On the other hand, he shows signs of refinement that are lacking among the members of his gang. When we first see him, he is quietly sketching a picture of a hawk, and he frequently quotes scripture. He is obviously governed by some sort of personal code, though it certainly doesn’t conform to conventional morality in any way. He is an honorable man, even if he is not a good man, and he can be counted on as such.

Evans, on the other hand, seems at first to be the very picture of long-suffering integrity. He is a veteran of the Civil War, during which he fought for the North and somehow had his leg crippled. Now, he scrapes out a threadbare existence with his wife and two sons which is threatened by a debt owed to another local landowner. Evans is not a hero in the sense of opposing evil at all times and in all ways, but he knows what is right and seems to try his best to do it. When he first takes on the job of helping to escort Ben Wade, it seems to be motivated primarily by his crushing need for cash. However, it soon becomes clear that he might have multiple ulterior motives, such as the belief that he has a civic or moral responsibility to see a criminal brought to justice if there is an opportunity to do so.

Matters are complicated by Evans’ son William, as mentioned earlier. William is too young to know much about the ways of the world, and it is obvious early on that he has little respect for his father. Evans knows that, even when the other landowner employs crippling, strong-arm tactics like burning down his barn, in the end he will be reduced to begging for the salvation of his land. William, on the other hand, demands action. He wants to see violence met with violence, and he despises what he views as his father’s weakness and cowardice. It is only natural, then, that William should immediately feel drawn to Wade, a true man of action, seemingly not afraid of anyone or anything.

William is definitely at a crossroads in his life, and he is watching very carefully the interactions between his father, whom he doesn’t respect, and the famous outlaw, whom he can’t help but admire. The battle between good and evil in 3:10 to Yuma, insofar as there is one, is for the soul of Evans’ son, and this adds an extra layer of tension to the already complex relationship between captor and captive.

Fourth, and finally, there is the climactic denoument, which brings the film’s thematic build-up to a head amidst a hail of gunfire. Finally arriving in Contention just ahead of the Wade gang, the small group hunkers down in a hotel room to await the train. The build-up to the finale feels a bit like a quick summation of the great Gary Cooper western, High Noon, as, one by one, the escort begins to crack under the pressure. No matter what motivations or ideals have prompted these men to come along on the journey, none of them seem willing to die for it . . . except Evans.

What is the source of this integrity that seemingly cannot be bought or intimidated? Without giving too much away, in the end it seems that Evans is not only lacking the respect of his family and business associates. He doesn’t respect himself. He wants to be able to look at himself in the mirror and not hate what he sees there, something he seemingly has been unable to do in a very long time. Wade, who has been struggling all along to get inside Evans’ head and figure out what makes him tick, is finally confronted with something he didn’t really expect, and his reaction to it is surprising (though not, to my mind, unbelievable).

I’ve heard many people call the finale of the movie silly and far-fetched, and on some level that’s almost certainly true. For my part, though, I found it both touching and exhilirating, too (thanks in part to an amazing score). On a purely visceral level, I can’t help but say it is my favorite part. In any case, 3:10 to Yuma may not be a Great Western, but it is certainly a very good western, and, having seen it twice, I wouldn’t hesitate to watch it again someday or recommend it to others.

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~ by Jared on August 21, 2008.

One Response to “What I Like About 3:10 to Yuma

  1. My only real complaint about the movie is the lack of realism. I certainly am not an experience cowboy or western officianado, but the movie made some really bad mistakes, that someone that had to make a living in that time period, in that setting, would not make. And no, this comes not solely from La’mour! I actually did some research on this, and talked to people that still “cowboy”. I know, crazy that people still do that, ey? Just annoying that the producers didn’t pay attention to that kind of detail. But overall, yeah, a good movie. Good character study, which is why I like the movie. ;)

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