We don't see much of the Western these days, except as a sort of ghost haunting other films. The Western may just about be dead as a genre, but it lives on as a mythic subtext: a subliminal whiff of saddle soap can bring a hint of something like timelessness to all kinds of contemporary material: look at A History of Violence, Heat, John Carpenter's Rio Bravo reworking Assault on Precinct 13, even Star Wars. But what, then, do we get from the very occasional echt Western that still canters into view? Such movies can't rely on clever reworkings of the old tropes: unless they're reinventing the genre as idiosyncratically as Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone, they need to do their job with the same kind of honesty and single-minded purpose with which the great canonic Westerns did theirs, otherwise we'll feel we're being played for city slickers.
That necessity has entailed a certain drabness in recent trad Westerns: the recent Seraphim Falls, or Kevin Costner's self-consciously earnest return to classic values, Open Range. But now here's a by-the-book Western that does its job, if not with visionary fervour, then with guts, integrity and enthuasiasm , and it may actually be that integrity that's got it to the top of the US box-office. James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 Western, directed by Delmer Daves and based on a story by Elmore Leonard, from long before he became the kingpin of hipster crime fiction. I haven't read Leonard's story, nor seen the Daves film, but the script here is co-credited to Halstead Welles, who wrote the original, and Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, so presumably we're getting a fairly close reworking by the latter duo of Halstead's original.
Echoing High Noon, the story is the classic good-man-in-a-tight-squeeze moral drama. That man is beleaguered homesteader Dan Evans (Christian Bale; Van Heflin in the original). Struggling to save his family and ranch from an evil landlord, he signs up to help escort captured robber Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, stepping into Glenn Ford's boots) to the prison-bound train of the title. But Wade's gang is hot on the trail, and his guards are biting the dust one by one. Once the story reaches the wonderfully-named town of Contention, Arizona, whose citizens eagerly accept a cash challenge to mow down the good guys, then it's down to Evans, the last honest man standing, to get Wade on board the 3.10.
The plot is thickened by Evans's 14-year-old son William (Logan Lerman) coming along for the ride. William is going through those difficult Oedipal years, and is contemptuous of his careworn, soft-spoken paw, largely because he's had his head turned by tales of gun-toting bravado. The boy is seen at the start poring over a dime novel called The Deadly Outlaw, and as shown in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven – the last great flourish of the Western proper – not the least of the Wild West's malaises was its impressionable pulp-fuelled consciousness of itself as the Wild West.
As soon as the lethal Wade shows up, the boy – and the film – come under the sway of his bandit charisma. A dab hand with a pencil – equally adept at sketching a bird on branch or a barmaid on a bed – Wade is also a smooth seducer, with a hackneyed but effective line of patter about green eyes. He likes to pitch himself as a dapper Robin Hood laughing at the law: "I'll come for ya," snarls a grizzled-as-all-hell Peter Fonda, playing a Pinkerton hireling outflanked by Wade, and the robber chuckles, "I'll be disappointed if you don't." But the film is in no illusions about Wade: he's a stone killer, "rotten as hell" by his own evaluation, although he doesn't compare too badly to some of his corrupt or lily-livered captors.
Russell Crowe is smart casting on Mangold's part: his charm comes with a streak of macho obnoxiousness and jowly self-satisfaction. And where Evans might have been dullness incarnate, Christian Bale, whose gimlet-eyed intensity can bring any part a quietly crazed edge, makes you understand that this quiet man is on a personal mission that's rather more feverishly pressing than simply doing the right thing.
Admittedly there's something slightly made-to-fit in the execution. After a hotel room siege, Evans and Wade have to run the gauntlet of Contention's gun-toting population, and you can't help detecting a tinge of contemporary computer-game logic in the mounting levels of jeopardy. But after a restrained slow-burn build-up, both the action climax and the moral payoffs are worth waiting for. This is hardly a mould-breaking or visionary Western: it doesn't even particularly feel like a 21st-century one. But it's tough, taut and intelligent in the old tight-lipped tradition, which gives it a certain anomalous freshness. Hell, if it weren't a remake, it might even feel original.
Further reading The source for the film is in 'The Complete Western Stories' by Elmore Leonard (Phoenix £9.99)Reuse content