All film genres go through cycles of popularity. At their height, the public’s hunger for them is insatiable. At their depths, they play to nearly empty houses, the public dismissing them with a memory for the genre’s worse moments and an amnesia for the best it has to offer. In the early 1970s, science-fiction was dismissed by the general movie going public as nothing more than silly juvenilia involving rocket ships, lasers and robots until George Lucas showed that those elements are just trappings for a story, not the purpose of the story, with Star Wars.
Similarly, the western genre has been in serious nadir for several decades now. Years have gone by between a western of any level of quality makeing an appearance at local cinemas. I dare say that most ticket buyers today would remember westerns for their six shooters that never needed reloading, paunchy white stuntmen painted as Indians and impossible bar fights. What they would be forgetting is that at their best, westerns are morality plays, stories of men living in a lawless environment, struggling to adhere to their own code of honor.
Director James Mangold’s remake of Delmer Daves’ 1957 western classic 3:10 To Yuma is a western that remembers what it is that made the genre great. A taut drama that plays out on horseback instead of a contemporary setting, it pits two men – struggling rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and notorious stagecoach robber Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) – each living by their own particular code. Evans, a wounded Civil War vet, is struggling to keep in his family’s ranch going in the face of an ongoing drought. In desperate need of money, he agrees to help escort a captured Wade to the town of Contention and the train to prison. Along the way, the ragtag posse must contend with Wade’s gang, savage Indians and, perhaps most dangerous, Wade’s smooth, silver tongue.
In some ways, this 3:10 To Yuma bears a resemblance to Rob Zombie’s recent Halloween remake. Both new films explore the psychological makeup and motivations of their characters in greater depth than their originals. Mangold’s screenwriters Michale Brandt and Derek Haas have taken the original’s script by Halsted Welles and fleshed out many of the character relationships, giving more depth to the desperation of Evans’ plight. Here, however, the end result works much better than in Zombie’s film, serving to amplify the drama of the original plot line rather than being at odds with it.
The script delivers much meat for great performances and the cast tears into it with gusto. Crowe delivers a performance that is both powerful and subtle, but never overwhelms the work Bale does as the conflicted rancher. The supporting cast all contribute equally good work with Alan Tudyk and Ben Foster standing out as the one of the posse taking Wade to Contention and Wade’s cold-blooded second-in-command respectively.
But is 3:10 To Yuma a powerful enough movie to single-handedly revitalize the western in the same way Star Wars did for science-fiction films? The answer is no, but not because the film itself is lacking in quality. The business of exhibiting movies has changed since then and no film will every create that kind of impact again. But this new version of 3:10 To Yuma is that rare breed of remake, one that stands on its own as a good, if not great, film. And hopefully, it will inspire a few more filmmakers to contemplate visiting the western genre.