3:10 to Yuma

Movie Information

The Story: A rancher, desperate for money to save his land, agrees to help deliver a notorious killer to justice. The Lowdown: A deliberately gritty, downbeat revisionist western from James Mangold with a brilliant central performance from Russell Crowe.
Genre: Western
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Peter Fonda, Dallas Roberts
Rated: R

If James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma can’t generate life into that most moribund of genres, the western film, then it’s probably time to consign the idea of westerns to Boot Hill and be done with it. The last time there was a serious attempt at a western—those “cute boys with big guns” personality-vehicles like American Outlaws (2001) and Texas Rangers (2001) don’t count—was Kevin Costner’s Open Range (2003), a film good enough that I thought (wrongly, as it turned out) it might revitalize the genre. Mangold’s film is better, and if it can’t do it, I doubt it can be done.

3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 Delmer Daves film of the same title (based on an Elmore Leonard short story), and this is one of those few instances where the remake is better than the original. In large part, this is due to the fact that the 1957 film wasn’t a lot more than “just another western” turned out at a time when westerns were a staple product. It was an unpretentious 92-minutes worth of movie with minor illusions of being the next High Noon (1952). The plot virtually remains unchanged in the new film, although with less romance and a significantly different ending. The new version is the better film because at his best, Mangold is simply a better filmmaker than Daves, and Mangold is at his best here.

The story is basic western material. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a down-on-his-luck rancher in Arizona. An ex-Union soldier with part of one leg gone, Evans finds himself with a wife, two kids, a failing farm and debts he can’t meet. When the chance comes to make a quick $200 by helping escort local bad man Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the train of the title—the one that will take him to prison in Yuma—he jumps on it, regardless of the high risk generated by the fact that Wade’s gang is determined to reclaim their leader.

From this, Mangold has crafted a revisionist western that doesn’t at first seem like a revisionist western. In fact, he’s made a western that plays straight till you realize that it’s questioning whether or not the whole macho-posturing, western-heroes-and-villains approach is anything more than an elaborate, deadly game of boys playing cowboy. The surprisingly layered story is ultimately an exercise in futility where only one of the participants, Wade, understands that it is a game—at least as far as he’s concerned. Wade’s claim that he likes “to do things the simple way” is hardly borne out by the film’s climax.

The results are a frequently bitter film noir western with unusually well-defined characters and some fine performances, especially from Russell Crowe. Crowe here justifies his frequently overblown reputation with his portrayal of Ben Wade. Wade is just the sort of larger than life creation that suits Crowe’s talents. Wade is presented as a Wild West criminal mastermind: a combination of Prof. Moriarty, Dr. Mabuse and Fu Manchu on horseback with a six-shooter. He’s deadly, ruthless, completely amoral, and yet possessed of a charm and charisma that make him the most appealing character in the film—and that makes him all the more deadly. He alone seems to understand the rampant injustice of the West and the fact that the railroad doesn’t care that he’s a multiple murderer, only that he’s cost them money. The true irony is that it takes the encounters with Wade to turn the glum Dan Evans into a likeable human being.

The whole cast is on their game here, particularly Peter Fonda as a cynical Pinkerton man and Ben Foster as Wade’s clearly psychotic right-hand man, Charlie Prince. Foster gives a chilling performance, underlined with a complex subtext that suggests Prince is completely fixated on his boss. The storyline is compelling and the action beautifully—if not always believably—staged throughout. Mangold’s extremely non-prettified vision of the Old West as a ramshackle world where law and order is merely a vague illusion and where the destinies of many are at the whim of a chosen few has an authentic feel, leaving only the magnificent landscape as a testimony to the traditional grandeur of the genre. If the western is dead, this is a beautiful eulogy. Rated R for violence and some language.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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10 thoughts on “3:10 to Yuma

  1. I saw “3:10 to Yuma” with my wife, and we were both very puzzled and disappointed by both the climax and ending of the film. I gather that this is not an uncommon reaction, but since the question popped up on another thread, I thought I’d start a discussion here as well.

    My big complaint about the film is this: Why make such a point of Bale’s character having a wooden leg if it’s not going to be a major obstacle at the end of the film? He’s bolting around on rooftops like a freerunner, and we’re supposed to, what, forget about the leg, or remember it and be all the more impressed? It’s a Chekhov’s gun that never goes off.

    And the end was beyond puzzling. Was there supposed to be some greater moral point? Are we to believe that Wade, in an instant, gives up being a villain and kills his band of outlaws because they were trying to rescue him? Or that he has some greater moral code?

    I’m all for ambiguous endings when they fit the story, but all I got out of this is that Crowe’s Ben Wade is a sociopath. It’s like a Shakespeare ending — pretty much everybody dies — but without any kind of actual resolution.

    That said, on the whole I thought the performances were quite good. The only one that really didn’t work for me was Luke Wilson’s glorified cameo, which was completely distracting.

  2. Ken Hanke

    The trick to this is going to be trying to discuss the ending without giving the game away for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. So let me start by warning that if you’ve not seen it and plan on seeing it, you might wanna skip this and come back after the fact.

    Steve, part of my answer to your question as to why Wade does what he does is at least implicitly answered in what I said to Nam Vet over on the Waters thread. In essence, I’m taking it that first and foremost this is a game to Wade. It’s made clear in the dialogue that escaping from the prison in Yuma is old hat to him. It’s made clear by the film’s end that he was already perfectly set up to escape from the train before he even got to Yuma. But up to the point of being put on the train, he’s sticking by the rules as he views them. Does he like Bale’s character? Yes, I think he comes to, but more, I think he’s fascinated to see what Bale will do and how much he can tempt him in a Mephistophalean manner. It’s like he’s testing him. And Bale passes those tests and wins the game. His gang — especially the spectacularly unbalanced Charlie Prince — break the rules by shooting Bale AFTER he’s won, so he shoots them for cheating — more or less like plugging some guy you found dealing from a cold deck (to keep it in wild west lingo). Also, as Crowe has said in interviews, Prince has become a potential liability (how much of that is grounded in his psychotic behavior and how much is grounded in Prince’s fixation on wade, something established early on, is a separate, unanswerable question.)

    I don’t think the wooden leg needs a pay-off beyond what it has — making Bale a physically damaged as well as emotionally damaged man, and, as it turns out, a man whose presumed battle wound isn’t anything so colorful.

    I wasn’t personally distracted by Luke Wilson’s cameo, though the point is well-taken. The film isn’t sufficiently stylized that it lends itself to that kind of conscious intrusion that almost deliberately reminds you this is a movie. It would be fine in a less realistic context, but not such a hot idea here.

  3. Nam Vet

    Ken, as I recall, Crowe said “now” and stepped aside after Bale had won. Prince shot Bale several times. Which makes me thing he wanted Bale killed. That was one the primary reasons I was puzzled when Crowe blew away his comrades. Yes he obviously was a sociopath. But I am still trouble by the ending. I would’ve liked a different outcome. Perhaps the director was going to extremes to get people away from their TV sets? If so, I like my movies to be more believeable. And since you are mentioning westerns. I think Unforgiven was a very good film of the genre. And that one was believeable. It also showed the dark side ofgunslinging.

  4. Ken Hanke

    As I recall the ending, Crowe screams, “No!” when he realizes that Bale is about to be shot by his gang, which would be consistent with my reading of the film. If indeed he does say “now,” then, I’m perplexed by the ending, too. If I get the chance, I will look at the end of the film this weekend sometime.

    THE UNFORGIVEN is from a period when I wasn’t reviewing movies on a weekly basis and wasn’t seeing many. This — combined with the fact that I don’t much care for Clint Eastwood — has resulted in my never having seen the film.

  5. Nam Vet

    Ken, each to their own, but many critics agree that Clint Eastwood is an excellent actor and director. You may have typecast him as Dirty Harry or the Man With No Name. I assure you he has a lot of RANGE. See “Bird” an Eastwood directed film (he is a big jazz fan). See “Unforgiven”. Afterall, he won an Academy Award for it. It is an excellent film that portrays the dark side of the “real” West and realistically shows how shooting people is a lot harder than the genre has traditionally portrayed. As I have said before, I do enjoy your reviews both in print and on the radio.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Yes, many critics agree that Eastwood is all that. I don’t and I have seen a great many of his films, but that’s sort of a digression in any case. I have admired the fact that Eastwood has continued to make movies his way. That his way doesn’t resonate with me particularly is another matter. I did like — or at least admire — LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA.

    I did watch the last 15 minutes of 3:10 TO YUMA again tonight, and Crowe most definitely shouts, “No.”

  7. Nam Vet

    OK Ken, thanks for seeing 3:10 ending again. Evidently, I heard it wrong. The ending makes more sense now. I do like Clint Eastwood and think he has made some really good films, both artistically, and as pure entertainment. But often our likes and dislikes are subjective, so each to their own.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Bear in mind, that I didn’t say Eastwood is a bad filmmaker (well, MILLION DOLLAR BABY is a separate issue). I merely said that I find him overrated and not to my taste.

  9. Caught this again on DVD recently – it’s become one of my favourite Westerns (not a genre I have great affection for), and easily my favourite Russell Crowe performance.

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