3:10 to Yuma
Directed by James Mangold
Lionsgate Films 2007
By Doug Nayler
Johnny Cash is completely responsible for 3:10 to Yuma. For many years, director James Mangold had been toting a script from production company to production company to remake a 1957 western based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. Nobody wanted it. “Are you crazy?” the studios said. “We’re going to lose so much money on a western. Nobody goes to westerns!” And, with no contrary examples more recent than 1994, Mangold had no other option than to give up and move onto some other projects. However, one of those projects Mangold ended up doing was the Academy-Award winning Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. After that, suddenly anything Mangold wanted to do was a great idea. And those exact same studios were suddenly lining up to throw money at 3:10 to Yuma. So the legend goes, anyway, such is the business.
The 3:10 to Yuma is the train murder and bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is to be sent off on to Yuma prison. Following a big, flashy robbery of his twenty-somethingth stagecoach Ben decides to push his luck by sneaking into the town the posse has just left from. Ben laughs, has some drinks, and finds a lady companion (in what is easily one of the weirdest seduction scenes I’ve seen in quite awhile). However, Ben is soon captured in part thanks to his being distracted by one-footed sharecropper Dan Evans (Christian Bale). Dan has had a rough time recently, with his landowner trying to drive him off the farm to sell the land to the railway. Dan needs to find some way to get some cash to get the family through the next few months. And when the opportunity suddenly arises to transport Wade to the Yuma train, Dan takes it. However, Ben, Dan and everyone else know that his gang is coming back for him.
The central focus of this film is the strange relationship between Wade and Dan, and that was a very good decision to make. Crowe and Bale are both ridiculously talented actors, and both carry the sort of quiet intensity that works very well in a western. The film’s most interesting moments come from the times when Ben and Dan are trying to get a handle on one another. Though their goals and values are completely opposed, there’s something that the two seem to truly begin to respect about one another. The complexity of this developing relationship is the through-line of the film and always what the viewer is eager to keep following.
The tragedy of the film, however, is that it’s rather schizophrenic. Because set against this very interesting, grounded central relationship is a series of very flashy, modernized action sequences. Perhaps I’m just a little hyper-sensitive when it comes to gunfights in westerns. Does it not seem over the top to have a man riding a horse be shot right in the bag of dynamite he’s carrying and thus explode mid-canter? Did the filmmakers really have to put that much effort into finding out a way to make a horse explode? You can’t have a high-speed chase on horseback, so it’s probably best to not even try. And yet all the gunfight sequences are shot in a very slick, high-octane manner that doesn’t really jive with the rest of the film. What makes this discontinuity so frustrating is the fact that it undercuts the more engaging aspects of the film. And it does this so consistently that about two thirds of the way through the viewer stops expecting the film’s strengths to come out on top. So in the end 3:10 to Yuma is not a great film, but a film with flashes of greatness that eventually get drowned out. So if you’re okay with that, I’d say it’s worth checking out.