Sunday, September 09, 2007

2007's 3:10 to Yuma: where's my Western?

Tucson, AZ, c. 1885

(spoilers aplenty)

"Harsh" doesn't begin to describe the summers here. Even with ubiquitous air conditioning, the heat just beats you down. It starts up in April and doesn't quit until November, relentless and inexhaustible.

Click to read full post with comments

If Westerns are evocative of science fiction, it's because the climate here is so radically different from where most people live that it could just as well be another planet. These alien landscapes have witnessed such dramatic history that places, names, and events have entered the vernacular, even though few people know anything about them. But just ask anyone what happened in Tombstone, Arizona, and you'd hear, "The gunfight at the OK Corral." But who knows what really happened there? Does anyone care about the actual history, when the stripped-down narrative of the shootout is so compelling, even void of context?

All Westerns -- whether they're made in America, Italy, Japan, or Australia -- have a few key things in common. These include a punishing environment, a sense of isolation or separation from civilization, and a redemptive arc. Every Western subordinates its man-versus-nature theme to its man-versus-man themes, but it can never eliminate it; the actors can't escape the environment. There's always at least one bad guy, and there's always a guy or guys trying to make good (which is not the same thing as a good guy.) Newer post-modern Westerns (best example: Unforgiven) give us conflicted heroes, who have been or may still be bad guys; but the black hat/white hat dichotomy didn't always hold true in vintage Westerns, either.

Which brings us to Delmer Daves' 1957 3:10 to Yuma, a spare, tightly-scripted Western mostly notable for the stunt-casting of Glenn Ford against type as the amoral, sweet-talking, murderous Ben Wade. Van Heflin co-stars as struggling rancher Dan Evans, beat down by years of drought and the tough luck of having no water running through his land. In case you've missed all of the plot synopses floating around these days, the story is: Evans and his boys witness a stage coach robbery and murder by Wade's gang. A quirk of fate helps Evans capture Wade in Bisbee, a one-street town just north of the border, when he's careless about staying overlong in bed with the barmaid. Evans needs cash to buy access to the neighboring ranch's water, and so he volunteers to get Wade from Bisbee to Contention (about 37 miles) where he can be put on the train to Yuma for trial and sentencing.

There are holes in this plot big enough to drive a locomotive through, the biggest one being why Ben Wade would ever get out of Bisbee alive, given his rap sheet. The threat of retaliation by his gang is enough to put the townspeople in fear, though, and they figure the best way to save their own skins is to hustle Wade out of there, and make him someone else's problem.

The journey starts at Evans' ranch, continues on horseback through scrub country, and ends in the bridal suite of Contention's only hotel. Throughout, Wade is shown to be a quick-witted flatterer with no morals at all. He flirts with Evans' wife, needles the man himself, and sucks up to his kids. Later he tries to bribe Evans when he realizes that Evans won't be scared off. It's very clear that he considers Evans inferior in all respects, even though Evans is the only one who doesn't abandon the mission of putting Wade on the train.

The final scurry to the train is both awkward and tense, and nearly undoes the film. There were at least a dozen shots Evans should've made to take out Wade's men. It makes no sense at all that both men arrive at the train unharmed, and it makes even less sense when Wade jumps onto the train. The only thing that saves this from being a complete debacle is Evans' incredulity: "Why did you do it, Wade? Why did you jump on the train?" Wade explains he has been to Yuma before, and escaped before, so it's not a big deal. And then it rains, which means Evans didn't need to do any of this, because the rains finally came to end the drought, so he didn't really need that money after all.

That's the point where I want to throw something at the screen. Evans, as a character, was consistent, sympathetic, and honorable. Wade approximated a lovable rogue but was in reality evil; there is no way I bought that a man who had earlier killed one of his own gang during the stagecoach robbery would jump on the train, rather than tackle Evans and push him under it so he'd be ground to bits.

At the same time, I can fan-wank an explanation: by that point, it didn't cost Wade anything to get on that train, he knew his gang could spring him from Yuma anyway. I'm willing to do this because up until that point, everything held together very well. 1957's 3:10 to Yuma is the essence of a Western, with the pressures of the harsh climate underlying and informing all of the decisions the characters make. The isolation of the main characters, combined with the absence of any effective law-enforcement, and tensions between Evans and Wade are the heart of the movie. I admit that I wished that Evans had earned his success, rather than having Wade hand it to him, but the lesson here is that in a setting like this -- in a Western, that is -- you take redemption wherever you can find it, even if it is at the hands of a murderer.

Now fast-forward fifty years to James Mangold's tarted-up remake. When I first heard about this picture, I was psyched, because here was an opportunity, I thought, to correct the 1957 version's character-betraying ending. Unfortunately, this picture is such a mess that even a terrific performance by Christian Bale can't save it. It's not enough that Bale's Evans be struggling with drought-stricken cattle, as in the original. Here, Evans has to deal with dying cattle, and the imminent repossession of his ranch by a wealthier neighbor who not only orders Evans' barn burned down, but also dammed up the stream on his property that was formerly watering Evans' cattle. As in the original, Evans is a Civil War veteran from a sharp-shooting regiment that fought for the North; but here, he's not just a vet who is great with a gun, he's a vet who had his leg shot off by one of his platoon mates during a retreat. To complete this sorry portrait, Evans couldn't sell off his ranch even if he wanted to, because his kid has tuberculosis and needs to live in a dry climate.

At least this Evans still has a pretty wife, but he's also saddled with an obnoxious teenaged son who obviously thinks his father is world-class screw-up. While Heflin's Evans expressed his need to earn his sons' respect with few words, Bale's Evans never shuts up about it. "Don't you forget, son, that it was your father who walked Ben Wade to the train when everyone else gave up," is the kind of thing that quite obviously does not need to be said... and yet there was Bale, saying it. Nice performance, though.

What of Evans' counterpart, Ben Wade, played this time by the charismatic Russell Crowe? As re-written by Welles, Brandt, and Haas, he's still a smooth-talking sonuvabitch, and he's just as ruthless, and he has just as keen an eye for the pretty barmaid. (Interestingly, both films took pains to portray her as a barmaid and not a whore, although it's for certain -- in both films -- that sleeping with men for money was something that she did just as often as tend bar; no respectable woman of that era would've been bedded so easily.) But, just as with Evans, the writers saw fit to embroider Wade's character, making him a compulsive sketch artist with an irritating habit of spouting Bible quotes. (That alone, I'd think, would've been enough to get him killed in a real western saloon.) Not only that, he had a troubled past, having been abandoned by his mother (at a train station! with a Bible!) when just eight years old; but his love for his Mama still burns bright enough for him to use an offhand insult to her as excuse for murder.

So, we've "progressed" from Evans motivated by survival, and at a secondary level, the need for respect in 1957, to Evans-as-Job in 2007. To Mangold & co, it's not enough that it hasn't rained. They've taken the environment out of the equation.

As for the other essential elements, isolation is stripped away, as well, in 2007. These two guys are hardly ever alone, starting out as they do with a posse. The travelogue portion is spiced up with an ambush by Indians who were supposed to have been relocated and a trip through a railroad-laying camp, populated by Chinese who worked as little more than slaves. This West feels like you're never more than five minutes ride away from the next settlement -- although what you'll find there is most likely barbaric.

At least the absence of reliable law enforcement is maintained. I'd give the new guys credit for that, except that they take it too far when Wade's first officer Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, in a widely praised turn that struck me as too much bug-eyed lunatic) offers a $200 cash bribe to anyone in Contention who shoots one of Wade's guards, and apparently dozens of townspeople take him up on it. First of all, with Ben Wade in town under guard and his gang riding in to spring him, who in their right mind would still be out on the street? Secondly, these people have been screwed over by Wade and his gang time and again -- all of them knew at least one person murdered by Wade. Yes, $200 is a lot of money, but is it worth getting killed for? Wade's gang mowed down the sheriff and his deputies as they were attempting to flee -- what makes these townspeople believe they'll live to see the end of this day? In Westerns, people should have a keener sense of self-preservation.

Once we've waded through all this extraneous verbiage -- that's the worst of it, that all of these new details are delivered through various speeches or heated exchanges, it doesn't matter, it's all words -- we come down to a final scurry to the train that is just as awkward and tense as in the original -- except it gets worse, because both Evans and Wade betray their charcters here.

In the crucible of an extended gunfight, a lot is possible; there are no atheists in foxholes, etc. But the idea that Evans and Wade would find a connection that makes them friends, and leads Wade to help Evans when Evans gets shot, makes no sense whatsoever. Wade's a sociopath, and Evans knows that, but by that point Evans is overtly suicidal, and it's up to Wade to pull him through. Evans' "Dying may be the best thing I ever do" attitude is anachronistic at best; it's not as if life insurance was an option back then, and if he dies, then how will his family survive?

At this point we should expect the sucker punch that's coming: at what should be Evans' moment of triumph, where you're thinking he'll survive and everything will be OK even though he did take that bullet, the picture bottoms out. Prince strides up and pumps Evans full of lead (Wade shouts, "No!" too late), and then all laws of Space and Time are suspended as Wade, recovering his gun from Prince, proceeds to mow down his now-assembled gang (none of whom shoot back, oddly enough), with particularly nasty attention to Prince. And then he gets on the train and surrenders his weapon and sits down in the cell, The End.

Oh, wait: Evans' older boy witnesses all this and is somehow supposed to come out of this feeling like his father had earned some respect. If the kid had eyes he'd see that Wade inexplicably protected his father, and that Wade put himself on the train, which should make him think, if he had a brain, that his dad had cut some sort of deal with Wade.

We're supposed to believe that 36 hours with Dan Evans was enough to inspire Ben Wade to give up his life of crime, after all that we've seen him do, and all that we've heard about him? No, sorry. In the original, it cost Wade nothing to get on the train; he did it more or less as a joke. Here, Wade sacrifices everyone and everything except his own life to get on the train, even after Evans is dead. There is no possible way to explain this satisfactorily, and the folks who are cooing over the "transcendence" of this resolution are bought much too cheaply. No one earned this ending; you could just as easily explain it by saying that Wade is really a cyborg whose logic chip was spontaneously reprogrammed when he got winged by a bullet.

Perhaps I'm too cynical. 83% of critics are waxing rhapsodic over this picture, and all I can see is a soap opera, and not a very good one at that.

The scenery is gorgeous, and a lot of it sounds right, too, since big chunks of the original dialog have survived. The pacing is for the most part excellent, and the costumes, props, and sets show that no expense was spared. But the story has been so complicated and the characters so distorted that, as much as this seems like a Western, as much as it wants to be a Western, it's simply not a Western. What a waste. For a real Western, you'll have to stick with the small screen.


sweeper said...

It's what I (and Eli Wallach) been saying:
If you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.

Curtis said...

Finally saw this. The only thing that I think you missed re the environment is -- well -- the whole thing about the snow, how it snows every once in awhile -- in Arizona, by God -- and how there's a huge field of snow in the final scenes that has no right to be there. We never see anyone's breath, we never see anyone bundled up, for all we know it's hot out. No one ever says, "huh, it's snowing, isn't that weird for Arizona." I bet they shot the movie in Alberta.

Other than that, you nailed it.

(Well, one more nitpick. I don't think Christian Bale had enough forks that he wouldn't notice Russell Crowe stealing one. Having said that, nice to see they had a part for a woman who was a complete wet blanket, and they thought of Gretchen Mol.)

blake said...

Very astute appraisal, I'd say.

I hadn't thought of the isolation aspect: It was sort of crowded in the remake.