Directed by James Mangold
In 3:10 to Yuma a poor farmer must escort a Jesse James-like criminal across dangerous lands to the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. In doing so the farmer, Dan Evans (Christian Bale), redeems himself in his disappointed son’s eyes while criminal Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) bonds with the man and grows apart from his own surrogate son, a dedicated but violent assistant to the regional manager named Charlie Prince (Ben Foster).
This is a story about hero worship and the increasingly modern western world. It’s about dying myths and practical realities. In addition to being a remake of a film made fifty years prior, 3:10 to Yuma might just pay homage to other classic westerns like Stagecoach Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as well as Once Upon a Time in the West.
Like the best old westerns, this is a movie about morality, with characters for whom some of the smallest decisions have life or death implications, but at a time where westerns may have gone out of style (at least after Clint Eastwood’s hey day save for Unforgiven), James Mangold made what feels like a classic, simple story.
2007 was a pretty great year for movies, and the appeal of a movie like this might not be all that different than that of other 2007 movies like No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton. Each of those movies was led by a familiar face (Tomme Lee Jones, Brad Pitt, Daniel Day-Lewis, George Clooney), but they were opaque, intelligent stories lathered in shiny trailer moments. One is about a deadly assassin hunting down a briefcase full of money. Another is about an oil tyrant conquering the world within his vicinity while Brad Pitt plays a gunslinger and Clooney plays a ‘fixer.’ They are sleek even if the worlds aren’t, and the movie sells you on a persona and his circumstance. Underneath that, of course, the stories are about something else.
Now, I love those movies, but I similarly enjoyed 3:10 to Yuma though for a much different reason. This is a movie that doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. You have a humble hero, a cocky but charismatic bad guy and a clear objective. While there is certainly some subtext, 3:10 to Yuma feels like a throwback western because of how streamlined, simple and unapologetic it is.
The characters are sincere or evil and rarely in the middle. The ostensible villain becomes something more heroic than we expected, but he stays true to his identity (always looking out for himself), and just about everyone remains who they were at the start.
So simplicity, that’s what I’m getting at. And these stories make for a good plot. The story moves quickly, and if it ever slows down it’s not for long, almost as if the studio held a timer and knew just when to move on before the audience lost interest. The added interest comes in the form of the clear goal and the clear ups and downs of that journey.
Like in a horror film, not every character survives the trip, and we can chart the progress of the journey by counting bodies. These ‘bodies’ are memorable, even in brief scenes, filling out an ensemble of wide-ranging characters like the ones you see in John Ford’s Stagecoach. You have the plain guy hero (John Wayne/Christian Bale), but around him (as the blankest of slates) you have all the people and their accompanying perspectives which will color in our own perspective of the world. We learn about the wild west through their own dispositions because you get the sense that they are all out for themselves, and they are.
If one guy is earnest and another greedy, you can be sure they both fell into such a frame of mind thanks to a shared goal, to survive. Working on this theory, that every character in a western just wants to survive, then we can learn a lot about what the film might say about how we live our life.
One might be humble in an effort to serve or as an attempt to avoid suspicion, crawling through the grass like prey avoiding the hawks. A banker might remain greedy, and this might say something about capitalism. Actually it definitely says something about capitalism, even if this character only exists to contrast with our empathetic hero.
So Dan Evans (Bale) and Ben Wade (Crowe) are the main characters. They are polar opposites, in theory, while everyone else fills in the vacuum between them. Because of the friendship they develop over the course of their journey, the story draws a clear parallel between them. How different are they really? Hell I could see each actor playing the opposite role, and Evans and Wade are like two sides of the same coin.
Evans can barely support his family and their farm, mostly because of a debt which leads to the burning of his farm and release of his cattle. When Wade glides through Evans’ life, he sees an opportunity. Evans, as a good shot from his Civil War days, volunteers to escort the arrested Wade across dangerous territory to a small Arizona town. His reward, should he successfully place Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma, is a big one which will ensure his family’s financial well-being. So he wants to survive, you get it.
Wade is a smooth-talking monster. He’s a murderer, a thief, a gang leader, and he commands the respect of everyone around him, most notably Evans’ rebellious son, William (Logan Lerman), who idolizes Wade like Robert Ford does Jesse James.
In spite of the violence or maybe because of it, William sees Wade as the man he wants his meek father to be. The weight of William’s gaze will linger heavily over the film, concluding in the final emotional payoff before the credits roll.
So Evans is the farmer trying to survive. His son’s manner of seeing the story has something to do with myth and the ways these stories are passed down and made larger than life. Wade is the man Evans becomes because of the way his son ultimately sees him.
Ben Wade is larger than life, seen as a legendary, vicious criminal, but his actions during the film contradict what we’re told to believe. He’s as handy with a revolver as the characters say, but other than one brutal moment he shows a certain decency we don’t expect. Or maybe we do, since this is a movie.
The real villain over the course of the film is the man who owes his life to Wade, Charlie Prince (Foster). He hunts after his hero even when the rest of their gang figures they’re better off without their onetime leader. Prince’s attitude transcends the basic, primal need to survive. He’s driven by something less practical and more altruistic, even if it leads him to plow his way through the land and the people who dare try and stop him.
It’s hard to know what to make of all the characters and their decisions. Emotionally it all makes sense. Every character receives an ending they deserve or long for, even if a tragic one, and there is a satisfying resolution to the story as a whole, both textually and subtextually.
Still, what do you gleam from each character’s end knowing that they surely say something about much more than the individual character? The two heroes, Evans and Wade, are practical men but they are concerned about legacy. Charlie Prince is a wild card and possibly the most complex character in the entire story because of his intense loyalty to a man who would show him none of the same attention.
Prince looks at Wade the way William will eventually regard his father. In the case of the latter, the affection is earned, and in the case of the former it is simply misplaced.
From the perspective through which we see this story unfold, Dan’s, everything makes sense in a cosmic manner. People get what’s coming, and each person’s end serves a purpose. From Charlie Prince’s perspective none of this is the case. He spends his time searching for his father figure, and the end to his story, at least through his eyes, surely comes out of left field, like divine intervention, God reaching in and taking over. Prince becomes a victim of the ways of the west. His journey ends not as a result of his own actions or those around him but because that’s just how it has to be. That divine intervention is the moral righteousness of the screenwriter, the one who restores balance.
That’s what so many of the classic westerns are. They remind you to live right and that such a way of living should offer you reassurance. The ones who gleefully break the law own the story at the beginning, but by the end they will fade only because their kind has no place in the modern world.
And all westerns were made by the modern world. We look back at the old west as primal and brutal. If I were to guess, we generally regard that time as the puberty of our existence, back when we had the right ideas (they lived in towns like ours!) but crime was rampant and greed mostly won out… until it didn’t, because eventually we made it here. The west dies and decency wins out.
So if my theorizing is true, then on some level every western is about the end of the west.
Up Next: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), Devil (2010), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)