Directed by James Mangold
Written by Halstead Welles, Michael Brandt & Derek Haas
Seen on DVD
Although the perpetual Hollywood craze for rehashing past favourites annoys me, for some reason I couldn’t pass this one up. It may have been the cast: the leading men have each had their share of temper-related tabloid scandals, but they are known for explosive performances on-screen as well as off. Discovering the filmmakers put up their own financing, because studio-land was of the opinion the western had flatlined, made me curious: why was this story so worth re-telling?
The Western is a distinctly American genre, tying in to the legend of the Wild West, the birth of nationhood and the beginning of the American Dream. 3:10 to Yuma is a brilliant exploration of the myth, juxtaposed with a well-rendered depiction of life at the time. Sure, it was an age of larger-than-life heroes and outlaws in a strange, vast landscape – but it was also an era of back-breaking work for the tiny, isolated groups of settlers strung out across the countryside, quite literally trying to scratch a living.
Quiet, crippled rancher Dan Evans, ridden roughshod by the local tycoon, is a man so defeated his eldest son despises him. Yet somehow he remains standing; keeps fighting for his farm, his wife and his sons. Christian Bale fully inhabits the character, portraying Dan as a man of integrity in the face of severe degradation.
In contrast, outlaw Ben Wade bends to no-one. Russell Crowe makes a delightfully charming cold-blooded killer. Nothing worries him, not even the deaths of his own men – and he seems in control of every situation, even after he’s caught red-handed.
When Dan steps forward to help escort the criminal to justice, he’s hoping to earn enough to pay off some debt – but instead, he’s quite literally travelling into Contention. It’s the town where the titular train departs for Yuma prison, but also the signposted opportunity for Dan to prove himself and finally become the central figure in his own legend.
Fittingly, it’s a tough ride getting there. Fighting off Indians, a posse of railroad staff with a vendetta, Wade’s gang, mobs of crazed townsfolk, and Wade himself, Dan’s journey is both physical test and battle of wills with a master manipulator.
As demanded by the genre, a variety of colourful characters back up the drama. All bases are covered: an annoying goon, loveable sidekick and an uptight money-man stand out, as does Peter Fonda, key among them as the grizzled guard determined to bring Wade to justice. Ben Foster terrifies as Charlie Prince, Wade’s ferocious, fiercely loyal right-hand man.
The rollickingly good score promises plenty of action, but drips with tension where needed. Shot on location, the film is beautiful, but director Mangold has astutely concentrated on the performances rather than allowing the stunning terrain to take over. The result is a fast-paced, intense story which the landscape affects but doesn’t control.
With no character morally sound enough to really be called a white-hat, the film inspires lively debate about intentions, morals, and man’s interpretation of religion. Much has been made of the ending, which differs greatly from the original film, but which I thought provocatively clever – the catch being that no matter what Dan does, he can’t win. Just getting Wade on the train isn’t justice, even if he can get him there, and they both know it.
Unfortunately for a film based on smarts and thought-provoking questions, it falls down logically. A elderly man with a severe abdominal wound, operated on with unsterilised, barbaric equipment and no anaesthesia, cannot believably be galloping across the country hours later, no matter how gruffly he asserts “ain’t the first time I’ve been shot.” I’m likewise unable to buy that a crack shot on a determined rescue mission can’t hit an exhausted one-legged man running ahead of him, or that the thirty-odd other desperate shooters will also miss. Such lapses might be part and parcel of a generic cowboy tale, but here it’s a let down, souring an otherwise extraordinarily good modern western.
Hooked on tales of the Wild West? The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a brilliant examination of the arrival of law and order, amidst nostalgia for the heroic myth. A masterpiece from John Ford, prolific in the genre and one of the greatest American directors to boot.