As I pointed out in my email invite, this week Jake brought us the first “proper” remake in Cinema 1544 history – considering that it’s the 186th film that we’ve shown (and that both the intended previous film from Conor and Jake’s first choice were ALSO remakes), the odds were probably for it eventually. I think we got a good one in 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, directed by James Mangold. The plot is based on an Elmore Leonard story, the second time Leonard has been featured, (though the first was a 30-minute short – The Tonto Woman).
On the face of it, 3:10 to Yuma is little different than many westerns. The fundamental plot – the white hats have captured a black hat and are trying to get him to prison while fighting the onslaught of the black hat’s gang – is something you’ve seen before. But the movie has more to offer than that. It has a great sense of atmosphere, for one, and the acting is impeccable – enough to make me forget how much of a prima donna Christian Bale is. But the best part of the film is the dynamic set up between destitute rancher Dan Evans, his son William, and the outlaw Ben Wade, and how this dynamic leads up to an unpredictable, initially unrealistic, but ultimately novel and satisfying end to the story.
The movie starts out with the bank men burning down hero Dan Evans’ barn for failure to pay down his mortgage in the face of a drought that has sapped his earnings. In the confusion, his elder son William takes quite a bit more charge than Dan does and the seeds of William’s animosity towards his dad’s evident…cowardice, for the lack of a better word…are clearly planted. Dan is down on his luck, of course, and he’s also missing half a leg which he lost in the Civil War (the prosthetic and accompanying limp and presumable difficulty in moving around is one of the most glossed-over plot points in memory, but I guess no film is perfect), but he just doesn’t seem to take action to defend himself.
That resentment gets a chance to fester the very next day when Dan and his boys stumble across the infamous outlaw Ben Wade and his gang as they execute a daring stage coach heist, effected by rustling what turned out to be Dan’s cattle out into the stage’s path. To his credit, Dan doesn’t up and run away when Wade sees him watching from afar, and he even daringly tells Wade he’s going to need his cattle back, but at the same time when Wade takes their horses at gunpoint so they can’t follow him into town, Dan doesn’t put up any sort of fight, and William is plainly disgusted.
Wade, on the other hand, is a bit intrigued by this rancher, and his admiration for Dan only grows when Dan unintentionally encounters him in a lonely saloon and brazenly starts shaking him down for money. Your heist cost me a day’s work. It cost my boys a day’s work. You killed two of my cattle. This much for making me nervous. And Wade bemusedly throws gold dollars at him until the ruse has gone on long enough for the law to sneak up on Wade from the other side.
Now that Wade is good and captured, the Butterfield railroad (whom he apparently has heisted 22 times) is keen to get him to Yuma prison for a proper hanging. The only problem is that Wade’s gang is probably not going to let the prisoner transfer go particularly smoothly. So a posse is formed up and Dan signs on for the tune of $200, which is a fairly princely sum for a risky journey.
The first order of business is to get interim gang leader Charlie Prince off of the scent, which is done with some trickery involving a fake wagon breakdown outside of the Evans ranch. Evans and his “ranch hands” go to help the coach and one of them gets surreptitiously swapped for Wade. The coach heads off in one direction while the main body of the posse holding Wade bides their time before heading off on horseback the opposite way to Contention, where they intend to put Wade on the 3:10 to Yuma.
You can imagine how the rest of it goes – three near escapes by Wade (one foiled by William, who was denied permission to come along but snuck out of the house at night and followed the posse anyway), and the posse gradually getting depleted (two of them killed by Wade himself) while in the meantime Prince tracks down the coach and learns of Wade’s true destination. None of that is nearly as important as the dynamic between William, Dan, and Wade. William sees his father as soft, Dan wants desperately to be a role model for William, and Wade is equal parts ruthless and redeemable. Wade takes a liking to the kid, just like he did his father.
Finally the posse gets to Contention only to be surrounded in a hotel by Prince and the gang, and finally with William sent away Wade and Dan Evans are the only two left. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, Wade tries to bribe Dan, telling him that it would still be his (Wade’s) easiest way out. Still, you get the feeling that it’s more like he kinda wants to see Dan get out of this alive and paying Dan to walk away would seem to be the only option.
Dan’s not having any of it. But it isn’t until Wade finally gets Dan at his mercy that Dan leads him to understand why he’s so hellbent on getting Wade to that train:
I ain’t never been no hero, Wade. The only battle I seen, we was in retreat. My foot got shot off by one of my own men. You try telling that story to your boy. See how he he looks at you then.
And then, in the moment, the completely unexpected happens. Wade decides that he is actively going to help Evans get him onto the 3:10 to Yuma.
The first time I watched the film, it was an unbelievable moment. The idea that Wade would effectively give himself up after all that effort to escape (he does say that he has broken out of Yuma prison twice before, be that true or an excuse) is hard to fathom. At the same time, Wade’s humanity has shone through here and there throughout the film, and the emotional resonance of the story hinges on Wade making that sacrifice so that Dan can be a hero to his boy.
Well, against all odds they make it to the train, ironically assisted by William (naturally he hasn’t left as he was told to) releasing a stampede of cattle, and Evans gets Ben Wade on that train, only to be shot in the back by Charlie Prince. Wade steps back down from the train in order to shoot Prince and the remainder of his gang before hopping back onto the prison car, while William tends to his father as he dies a hero.
A great flick, and my only complaint (outside of the on-again off-again prosthetic leg) is that while Wade’s decision to ultimately help Evans is central to the film, it’s not quite justified enough, it happens a bit too quickly, and a bit too late in the narrative. The story is right, it’s dead on, it’s how the plot has to go for us to have any long-lasting reason to care for a film which otherwise we’ve seen before. And in hindsight, it’s set up, it’s emotionally resonant, and all that. It’s just that it doesn’t quite play out successfully in real time. In a movie where James Mangold has brought us top-notch acting and atmosphere, he just doesn’t have the screenplay perfect. Wade’s decision can be as shocking as you want it to be, it just needs to be a little more believable as it plays out.