By coincidence or a private will not known to me, I have in the last two days seen two recent Westerns that mirror each other in many ways. They both feature two characters that function as mirror images of each other, going from distorted reflections in the beginning of the films to having erased many of the traits that separated them towards the end. While the one film is a seemingly never ending chase where the protagonists never catch up to each other, the other film is spent with the two protagonists sharing most of the screen time, one a captive of the other and not only in the physical sense. I’m talking of David Von Ancken’s Seraphim Falls (2006) and James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma (2007).
The latter film, which I shall concern myself with in this post, is a remake of Delmer Daves’ classic psychological Western from 1957, which is considered one of the greats of the genre. I find it interesting that the genre is of a kind where not much in terms of narrative need to be changed even though the two versions of the same story are separated by half a century exactly. The 2007-version is not a blueprint copy, though, and maybe one shouldn’t expect it to be. It’s easy to spot the superficial changes, but also in terms of psychology are they a bit different.
To begin with the casting, I think Mangold did a good job in getting Russell Crowe and Christian Bale to play the roles originally inhabited by Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. There are similarities between the two generations of actors, even though Bale is more of a leading man material than Van Heflin (“Louis B. Mayer once looked at me and said, “You will never get the girl at the end”. So I worked on my acting.”) ever was. I’ll readily cede the point that I don’t doubt Bale also works on his acting. There are these days few more thorough in the method acting tradition than Bale. As good as he is in this film, though, I have to say he doesn’t reach the brilliance of Van Heflin’s work in the original. Seldom have I seen a man able to convey so much with small movements; a flick of the eye, the brief glimmer of a begun smile in an otherwise precarious existence. One believes Van Heflin is the character he portrays through and through and no amount of method hysterics will enable Bale a similar ability. This is less a criticism of Bale than an acknowledgement of one of the unsung heroes of the history of film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Van Heflin do a less than impeccable acting job. (For those interested, I’ll also point to the brilliant Fred Zinneman Film Noir: Act of Violence. It is one of the best films in the genre, by a very good director working with two of my favourite actors, Heflin and Robert Ryan. I doubt you’ll see many better films this or any year.)
Both Crowe and Bale do good work in this film. Crowe is convincing to a degree as the well read and already semi-mythical gang-leader Ben Wade. He fits the role of an ambiguous bad guy, and portrays with an almost off hand ease the character as both cruel and charming without turning him into an out and out psychotic. Both Crowe and Ford have played a wide variety of characters from both sides of the good/evil dichotomy (see Ford in The Man From Colorado for a grand psychopath!) The reason why I still rate Glenn Ford’s role higher has, I suspect, more to do with the script than with the actor’s ability.
In the original, there is a fantastic scene at the hotel where Van Heflin’s character, Dan Evans, has been deserted by everyone that was supposed to share his burden. Even the cynical moneyman, the capitalist owner of the diligences that Ben Wade has robbed, tells him that “You don’t have to do this. If it’s money you worry about, I’ll pay you the $200 now if you let him go.” As he hears this, Glenn Ford is leaning into his ear, talking fast, promising everything, giving voice to all his doubts about the situation, telling him how much easier it is to give up his mission, and he will even get paid anyhow. The picture is framed in such a way that I’m convinced that Ford’s leaning in that particular way is not the actor’s choice but a carefully construed image that the director wanted us to see.
This scene is indispensable in order to give and make sense of the tale. It is impossible not to see the Christian analogy going on here. Already we have heard that Van Heflin’s monetary troubles stem from a continuous drought (seven years) that has made living off the land impossible. Now he has a chance to redeem himself and alter this cruel fate as well as his own vision of himself, his own worth, so to say. Already his wife has been there and pleaded for him to give up, she has said that she “loves every moment of their misery”, she says that their children are proud of him anyway. So the only responsibility he has left is to himself, or to his place in the world, which is a moral world. By setting up all these temptations for him and letting him overcome them, he is given a similar saviour role as Christ and that, my friends, make Glenn Ford the Devil. Or God; because another Christian reference in Van Heflin’s role is that of Job, and Glenn Ford can equally be the God that tells the Devil that “his man” will come through no matter the temptations put in his way. How else to explain that Ben Wade willingly jumps onto the train with him after he has overcome all the temptations to quit his task that the film has put in his way?
It is telling that the final scene of the original film is the image of his newly devoted wife looking at him in a way she hasn’t for years and then the rains come and his crop is saved and they are all smiling for the first time in the film, even the villain, willingly being taken away. (Job is given back his family and his crop as well). Whether Ford is a God-like character or the Devil being amused by God’s success in having belief in his servant is not important. That he can oscillate between the two positions, and even be both at once, is both psychologically fulfilling as well as narratively sound. Dan Evans has spent the entire film fighting the temptation “to go to the dark side”, as George Lucas brusquely would have put it, to the point that it is almost worth asking whether Ben Wade really exists or if he is a manifestation of Evans’ consciousness.
In the 2007-film’s corresponding and almost identical scene (although the capitalist is a Pinkerton agent in the new version), they seem to have missed this entire allusion to Christian mythology. Crowe remains lying on the bed, not giving the impression that there is any devil in the room, or even that he is the voice of Dan’s own doubts. This is a pity and almost incomprehensible, as there at least twice earlier in the film is made a point of Crowe quoting scripture. We are sort of given a pay off to these allusions in a story Ben Wade tells about how he was left by his mother at a young age after she had told him to read the bible. “I read it for three days, and she never came back”, he says. Thus, the new film finds a very prosaic, banal and not altogether believable psychological explanation for the character’s knowledge of the bible. But this doesn’t add much to the story or our interpretation of the story.
Another modern and perhaps more simple trait is that the new film has to have Dan Evans’ eldest son present for much of the action. This son has been critical of his father, pretty much calling him a coward and an incompetent. Rather than, as in the original, having the story play out as a morality tale, creating the (Christian) mythology anew for the West, the new version seems to reduce the scope of the story to more modern concerns of child rearing and being role models. It is worth noting that the wife is never seen after the initial meeting of all the protagonists in the kitchen scene, possibly reflecting that the family values (husband-wife-children) are different these days. While I won’t comment on the moral validity of this view (if moral it is), I’ll say that it changes the dynamics of the film and even the meaning of the narrative to a degree that surprised me.
The original film is a lean 88 minutes, shot in stark black and white. It begins with a stagecoach crossing a large, flat landscape, then cuts to the shadows of the men riding the Diligence, then to the robbery. In the midst of the robbery, Dan Evans and his two sons witness the assault where Ben Wade kills some men and orders the capitalist to send the bodies to their home town: “Where a man lives is where he should be buried”, Wade says. “Aren’t we going to do something, pa?”, the one son says. “There is nothing to be done”, Dan Evans answers. This sequence takes about five minutes to tell in the original and twenty-five minutes in the new version. The original manages to establish the characters and the basic moral compass they have, as well as their initial view of the world, with sparse and effective storytelling. The new version finds it necessary to make the robbery into a big action scene, with men killed to the left and right, and doesn’t tell us an iota more of who the characters are. Oh well, I thought, I guess this is what it takes to hold people’s attention these days.
The original finds itself ensconced in the hotel room in Contention City (surely not an accidental name!!) within 45 minutes, while the new version needs half an hour more to get there. Of course, it’s in this room that the film is supposed to excel, waging the war between good and evil, temptation and duty to a higher cause. But since the new version tries to be an action film, it seems that the film maker can’t wait to bring in the outside world again, afraid that these scenes will slow the film down. While I understand that remakes generally has to be “bigger”, if not necessarily better than the originals, I find so many positive things in James Mangold’s film that the let downs are particularly disappointing.
While the new version doesn’t spell out all its points, it is too subservient to a perceived stupider modern audience. I’m not certain that it is correct in assuming that people nowadays need everything explained. With the generally elevated competence in media, I shouldn’t think that people are less able to interpret films than they were before. However, this film evidently needs to have a character call another homosexual for us to understand his psychological connection to his leader Ben Wade. This is an aspect of male relationships that was very often hinted at in earlier westerns. Maybe it was not de rigeur to call this kind of love by its name, or perhaps people were inclined to understand the situation unsaid; nevertheless, the ambiguity of this kind of unspoken relationship seems to me enrichening in a narrative sense if one is not going to go all Brokeback with the situation anyway. See Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (relationship between Henry Fonda‘s and Anthony Quinn‘s characters) for an example of the kind of Western I’m talking about here.
I actually think that the best parts of the new version is where they stick closest to the original, as in the kitchen scene at home on Evans’ farm, which is almost verbatim the same. Then, when they leave the farm, the original quickly found the riders in Contention City. Here, though, the director wanted to show as much of The West as possible, putting in Apaches (which is a wasted opportunity, as they are pretty incompetent for being “the toughest, the ones who have stayed”), Chinese labourers and an unnecessary long scene with a rival gang of “lawmen” or railroad-agents. I can appreciate that he wants to show the capitalist exploitation that lay the ground for USA, so to say, and I certainly can applaud that he doesn’t make Wade a one-note character, but these scenes don’t contribute much to the story. In a way I feel that the film as it is now has too much fat. “With a little money, you can get almost anything”, Glenn Ford said in -57.. That’s enough; we don’t need to see the exploited workers or the sadistic railroad foremen. It is abundantly clear elsewhere that selfish lust for money and the unequal distribution of wealth is criticized in the film.
Where the recent version contributes something new of value is in its slight change of focus; that it takes its two protagonists as mirror images of each other. Of course, this aspect of the story also exists in the original, but I feel it has been sharpened in the newer film. They begin by being complete opposites; one is lame and defeated and a family man whom justice has failed, while the other is virile, vital and a killer without any bounds to anyone or anything, a man who has no concern of the law and who himself decides what is justice. Gradually the two characters begin to merge, and it seems as though they both drift towards the middle, towards being one man. When Bale jumps at Crowe in anger after the latter has spoken about his wife, Crowe says “I like this side of you”. Thus, he seems interested in making Bale be more like himself, in swaying his antagonist into his own perception of the world. At the same time, Crowe mellows and does good deeds to the point that he has to defend himself against speculations that there might indeed be a good side to him: “I’m a bad man, to do what I do, to lead this gang of savages you have to be a bad man. Make no mistake. I’m evil.” In both films there is an underlying assumption that both men to a degree envy the life of the other, and this explains some of the divergence in their characters.
In this version, when Crowe jumps onto the train, it is because the two men at different sides of the mirror finally stand nose to nose and they are the same for a moment. As soon as Bale is no longer there to balance him, however, Crowe’s character reverts to his former self and shoots down his entire gang, as if to say that they had only been bit players in his story, and that he would decide when their parts were over. Again he has taken complete control of the situation, after for a while maybe having enjoyed being led by his mirror image. Thus, where the first film was about the Van Heflin-character achieving redemption, the new film is to a larger degree about the bad guy winning the day. Being unbound in spirit, he lets himself be bound by finally jumping on the train alone, saying “I have escaped before”. We have no reason to doubt that he will do so again, by his own will, which is the Western will of making his own destiny, no matter the amount of bodies in his wake.
Many films have a subtext dealing with a current social situation. This is maybe especially true for genre films, particularly Westerns, horrors and, of course, science fiction, that is almost always a comment about Earth more than the stars. It is not unreasonable to view the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma in light of McCarthyism that was still an ongoing concern towards the end of the fifties. (To stick to one’s beliefs and not fold under pressures of a financial nature or because everyone else folds…) I don’t imagine that the new version is made in a cultural vacuum neither. It’s not hard to find a current situation in which themes dealing with the exploitation of the poor, and sending the poor to do the rich men’s work – even though it can kill them – out of financial necessity, is relevant. The Iraqi War can also be the reason why this film is about fathers and sons (while the mother waits at home) and the importance of giving an example (of sound principles and non-violence) to one’s offspring. Christian Bale’s victory in this film is not, as it was in the earlier film, getting on the train with Ben Wade, but in seeing that his son doesn’t follow the impulse society has tried to imprint in his mind (by the romantically violent dime novels; the TV of its day) and shoot his perceived enemy. Instead of choosing revenge, he mourns his father. As such, the film is anti-war and anti-capitalist, but allows for reality by letting the bad guy escape as a kind of hero to many that will watch this film.