All contemporary American westerns share the same three facets: geography, horses and guns. Most modern westerns also share a certain sense of the extreme – they are either shoot ’em up flicks with the morality of a children’s book or subtle, naturalistic studies of gray men with even grayer virtues.
“3:10 to Yuma” is the first of the batch to successfully combine flashy Hollywood violence with good storytelling, and to satisfy both a bloodthirsty and an emotionally receptive audience. Somewhere interwoven between the exploding horse, the Gatling gun, and the steadily rising pile of bullet-riddled corpses, is the story of two men struggling for love and freedom.
The film centers around two men – one respectable and the other far from it. Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is desperate for money, and anxious to earn the respect of his wife and children, so he volunteers to join a motley caravan taking notorious thief and killer Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a train that will transport him to prison. He rides with a few others, including a grim, aging Peter Fonda, in a race against Wade’s mercenary gang, as they struggle to make the titular train.
Unlike most of the early classics of the genre, the line between right and wrong, outlaws and lawmen is blurry in “3:10 to Yuma.” Nearly every gunslinger shoots at just about everybody else in the film, for any reason. In the end only Evans and Wade, the ostensible good and bad guys, respectively, are portrayed as having any motivation besides money and vengeance.
Today, a western without dogmatic people and simple ideals is no cinematic novelty, but it was subversive in 1957 when the original “3:10 to Yuma” was released. That film was directed by Delmer Daves and adapted from an Elmore Leonard story. The final product, starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, was a rare gem of complexity and realism for its time. Most western productions, like “Shane,” touted characters with fewer dimensions than a straight line, but the original “3:10” was refreshingly oblique.
Director James Mangold’s modern reproduction keeps much of the story and terse dialogue that made the original great, and sets it among darker and more brutal men. The additional 35 minutes of the 2007 version of “3:10 to Yuma” can be attributed to more fighting and violence, but none of it depreciates the development of Evan and Wade’s relationship – the real driving force behind the picture.