Saturday, June 6, 2015

all anybody can do is stand by and watch

Wright (1975) doesn't deal with 3:10 to Yuma at all even though its plot seems like an update on High Noon. Like High Noon before it, this Elmore Leonard story-based film is built more on dialogue and unarmed standoffs more than action or violence. When the remake came half a century later, Roger Ebert said it "restores the wounded heart of the Western and rescues it from the morass of pointless violence." As we'll see soon with this month of Westerns, things turned particularly violent by the 1960s, and as Ebert points out in his review, "The Western in its glory days was often a morality play, a story about humanist values penetrating the lawless anarchy of the frontier... but the audience's appetite for morality plays and Westerns seems to be fading." Or maybe it's long gone. Really, I think we love morality plays, we just don't like them to come as deliberately as Westerns like High Noon or 3:10 to Yuma, or even Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with its slow buildup to its inevitable climax. We like our morality plays less heavy-handed. That the slasher film (see this blog any day last October) was born after the Western had peaked could be sign of a transfer to another genre for our morality. Action films of the 1980s (see this blog any day back in January) as well offer up morality in a more palatable (read: more one-sided) form.

3:10 to Yuma is not one-sided. Instead it revolved around the binary of Dan Evans and Ben Wade. The amazing thing is in those oppositions that Wright loves (even if he doesn't deal with this film). For example, our reluctant "hero" Evans (Van Heflin) is the one who is outside society, living on his farm with his wife and sons. Damaged by the war, psychologically as well as physically, his is short with his wife, seeing her disappointment in him even though she hasn't the time to express it before he's reacting to it. The villain, Wade (Glenn Ford), on the other hand, spends the beginning of the film in town, and he is genteel and polite. Aside from Wright's strong/weak opposition, we see here a hint of the kind/unkind opposition. But, it is our hero who is weak, our hero who is (at least a little bit) unkind.

Wade's presence in the Evans household for dinner plays a bit like Shane in the Starrett's home or Ethan Edwards in his brother's. The presence of this extra, stronger, more confident male challenges the domesticity of the home environment, challenges the marriage and the family unit. Unlike Joe Starrett (played by none other than Van Heflin who here plays Evans) or Aaron Edwards, Dan Evans has the wherewithal to be openly jealous, but this just pushes him further down the spectrum away from the civility of Ben Wade.

(Both Heflin and Ford served in the military during World War II, by the way, but it doesn't seem like either one necessarily saw combat. Well, Heflin was a combat cameraman in the First Motion Picture Unit so he did see combat. Ford, on the other hand, was a motion picture production technician in the Marines in San Diego. I bring up their willingness to serve because of, well...)

3:10 to Yuma operates on the same level as many of these Westerns made after World War II. We have characters who fought in the Civil War who have pulled away from society in one way or another and now the film pulls them back. These films deal in damaged men trying to do what's right, trying to be men. I quoted a piece by Metcalf yesterday in which he complains about the when men were men, and women were hysterics version of history on display in many a Western (but particularly The Searchers). There is good reason that the idealized world of the Old West in these films exists as it does. Regardless of what perspective we might have on such issues today, we're talking about the 1950s here. Second-wave feminism hadn't really come yet. And, whatever psychological and physical wounds may have resulted, America believed that World War II had given us men being men, going off to fight evil on the other side of the world to keep us all safe at home.

The wounds resulting from the war--those get brushed aside for the illusion of nice suburban life, the Rockwellian wholesomeness that we look back so fondly on today, pretending that 1950s America was a wonderful, happy little place. But, the Western invokes those wounds, invokes the challenges to masculinity that come after, when life has to go back to normal. In the (1950s) real world, Dan Evans would just be stuck with everyday life. 3:10 to Yuma offers up the fantasy of a new proving ground even as it serves as a metaphor for the war itself as such a proving ground.

The remake, of course comes when we've been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for a few years. We've got soldiers coming home damaged again.

The remake is a good enough patch on the original, with some amazing performances (including the basically new character in Charlie (Ben Foster), Wade's second) but it also alters the overall structure a bit by starting us with the son and then a direct attack (which adds a new element to the story--more on that below) on Evans' property. This is the setup for a vengeance plot that doesn't follow... Which actually puts the audience in a weird position; we, too, can be disappointed in Evans (Christian Bale).

The movie is hitting things a bit too much on the nose right off, though, with Evans' son's overt... not just disappointment but disapproval. "I ain't ever walking in your shoe," he tells his father. Also, despite Ebert's bit above about this not having "pointless violence" the robbery at the start of the film is not the understated scene that we got in the original but an over-the-top bit with a coach-mounted gatling gun, explosives and a big crash. Picking off the wounded provides an opening into Charlie's character, but the chaos of the robbery detracts from the character of Wade (Russsell Crowe) a bit. He was just sitting around sketching a hawk, and he sits astride his horse watching the action unfold. But, there is a sense of things not going as planned. This Wade is not as on top of things as Ford's was. He's more intense but not, at least initially, as charming. He doesn't charm the female bartender here but almost forces himself on her.

In fact, this film reverses the kind/not kind opposition of Evans and Wade. Crowe's Wade seems more conniving, like he's manipulating everybody rather than, as with Ford's Wade, just being so charming that everyone listens to him outright.

It also adds a new element to Evans' money troubles by making a subplot out of his owing money to a businessman who is present in the film instead of less specific money troubles. Just as long as Evans still ends up doing what he's doing because he feels he must, this more explicit intrusion of moneyed interests seems a distraction.

Apache and Chinese labor camp tangents are distractions as well.

The biggest problem, in comparing these two versions of the same story, is that Ben Wade in the original comes across as an ok guy; Evans has good reason to keep him from being killed instead of going to prison. Here, by extending their road trip, the film gives Wade the chance to murder two men in front of Evans, making his badness less ambiguous.

(There's a great little moment in the original that is lost here. Wade, in the original, picks up a small rug from the floor and puts it on the bed to put his feet up, realizes he still has on his spurs and removes them. Here, we just have Wade with his boots up--do any of these men even wear spurs?)

Speaking of badness, Charlie and Wade's other men certainly kill a lot of people, and publically renege on deals. Wade asks Dan why he and his son should die because the railroad lost some money, but this is not just about money. In the original, Wade is more believable as the kind of character Evans' son would idealize in dime novels, yet it is here than Evans' son does so.

Wade turning on Dan on the way from the hotel to the station--and Dan's subsequent revelation--this is no match for Wade's respect for Dan and his willing jump onto the train in the original. This Wade is interesting--and Crowe is a better performer--but that Wade was more interesting.

References

Ebert, R. (2007, September 6). 3:10 to Yuma [Review]. RogerEbert.com Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/310-to-yuma-2007

Metcalf, S. (2006, July 6). The Worst Best Movie: Why on earth did The Searchers get canonized? Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_dilettante/2006/07/the_worst_best_movie.html

Wright, W. (1975). Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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