(2007) dir. James Mangold
viewed: 09/21/07 at AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA
A big fan of Westerns, I, like many others, have come to deal with the genre as a dying form. A historical quirk of 20th Century popular culture. The further and further our culture moves from a time when the worlds of the Western, the expansion across the continent, the “taming” of the West, the history was also a popular fantasy, idealized by culture as a place in which humanity, culture, Americanness all stood for something, character of the people, “when men were men”, when concepts of good and bad could easily be embodied in the narratives.
It was an immensely popular genre. I think that even those of us of my generation, who grew up with a largely aging, kitschy, or classical sense of the form, barely could comprehend its significance for people growing up forty years earlier, nor could we, until as adults, fully realize the open space in the filmic genre of Westerns for playing with conventions, turning them inside out, modernizing, post-modernizing, and deconstructing the genre became even in the years of our birth and early childhood. And what became of the genre in the modern years, the last 30 years, it’s become as rare almost, as a ghost town (in modern productions), and though it still resonates for some, it’s hard to imagine that it will ever find the popularity it once had, even if Westerns continue to get made…which I imagine that they will for some time.
So, the real remarkable thing about 3:10 to Yuma, a re-make of a 1957 Delmer Daves film with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, is that it’s been pretty successful as a mainstream Hollywood film of today, featuring two of the better Hollywood actors, Russell Crowe and the always solid Christian Bale. But it’s also managed to find popularity and resonance, it seems, with contemporary audiences.
Directed by James Mangold whom I have criticized in the past (most recently for Walk the Line (2005) but also for Girl, Interrupted (2001) and Identity (2003)), it’s a surprisingly well-enough put together of a film. The screenplay seems solid and the two leads really draw together this moderately economical story of a seemingly ruthless bandit being ruthlessly carried to catch a train to a prison for execution by a homesteader and his son and several associates of Southern Pacific railway, who has sought the villain to bring to justice.
The film, in a sense, is the type of morality play that can work in many types of films, drawing together the enigma of defining one man as “evil” and another as “good”, while showing through their development and relationship that oversimplification of such things is deeply wrong. Nothing new here, really, though a fine enough sentiment. And Crowe and Bale manage to play this out quite successfully, feeling real and genuine and meaningful.
Westerns tend to reflect the era in which they are made. Does this one? Is it not a bit more of a throwback to the traditions of the genre in its heyday? The attitude toward the railroad is a mixed and unclear one. The train is central to all the narrative: it is the coming of the railway that endangers Bale’s family’s farm, it is the obvious destination of the posse and their quarry, and they even find transit through the hills being blasted for future rail passageways. Yet, I don’t sense anything in it really being said.
I think that Bale’s character, a one-legged Civil War veteran, whose allegiance to the North and volunteerism and patriotism are muddled by his deforming and debilitating wounds and the fact, late disclosed that they came from “friendly fire”. His whole sense of self, re-asserting his masculinity and virility in his personal goodness is a core of the story, echoes back in our present with the moral ambiguity, or at least ambiguity of meaning of our current war, its effects on returning troops, especially by a “friendly fire” incident. This isn’t played up heavily, but it’s there.
The film is good. It’s solid and traditional. And while I have renewed appreciation for Crowe and validated appreciation for Bale, the film’s solidity stops short of uber-significance. It’s a good and enjoyable thing, and what traditions it recalls, may echo in sentiment in Americanism, both political and cultural, it will be interesting to see it’s context in time.