Monday, August 25, 2008

A Classic Western Tale, Part 2

In 2007 the movie 3:10 to Yuma, first released fifty years earlier, was remade by director James Mangold with Christian Bale playing the rancher Dan Evans, the role played by Van Heflin in the original version, and Russell Crowe playing the outlaw Ben Wade, originally played by Glenn Ford. Mangold had directed several films. Among them are Girl, Interrupted (1999), in which Angelina Jolie, in a genuinely creepy performance as a psychotic teenager, stole the movie from its star, Winona Ryder, and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the process; the strange Identity (2003), a mystery in the style of And Then There Were None, in which a group of people taking refuge from a desert storm in an isolated motel are picked off one by one, and whose solution is truly bizarre (the killer and victims are various personalities of a murderer suffering from multiple personality disorder); and the Johnny Cash biography Walk the Line (2005).

In remaking 3:10 to Yuma Mangold used most of the plot and much of the dialogue of the 1957 movie. But he expanded the film by about half an hour (the original runs 92 minutes) by adding elements clearly intended to increase the movie's appeal to more modern and youthful audiences. To the original plot he added more, and more graphic, violence and more action.

In the original, once the exchange of the substitute for Wade has been effected we never see the gang again until the shoot-out finale. In the remake, Mangold follows the gang in a parallel story line while Wade is being transported to Contention. Among other things, they catch up with the stagecoach and burn it when they discover they have been tricked. The substitute inside is burned alive in the background while in the foreground the gang obliviously discuss their next move.

In a very exciting sequence they pursue Evans and his party—which in this version includes Butterfield, the owner of the stagecoach line, and several others—to a railroad tunnel being blasted through a mountain. The posse dynamites the tunnel behind them, thus thwarting the outlaws but also killing several of the construction crew, who are largely Chinese. The gang does eventually catch up to Butterfield (Peter Fonda), whom they sadistically murder. The climactic walk to the train depot is staged as an intensely frenetic gun battle that goes on far longer than the comparatively brief one in the original and is far more elaborately staged and edited. So intense is the fusillade that it defies belief that Evans and Wade could survive it.

The result of these additions and expanded running time is that the section in the hotel room in Contention constitutes a much smaller proportion of the film. In narrative time, Evans and Wade spend only a little more than an hour there, whereas in the original they spend several hours in that hotel room. This shifts the focus of the film away from the psychological interplay between Wade and Evans and toward the action sequences of the journey and the extended shootout at the end. The scenes between Evans and Wade in the hotel room seem almost an afterthought rather than the centerpiece of the movie and in a way its raison d'ĂȘtre, as in the previous version.

Mangold also makes noticeable changes to the personalities of the characters. He makes the Wade character just a shade more ambiguous than in Daves's version. Wade, as played by Russell Crowe, is if anything even more noble and certainly less psychologically menacing than in Glenn Ford's interpretation. Crowe makes Wade seem almost like a nice fellow who just happens to be an outlaw. In the hotel room sequences he comes across as less openly manipulative than Ford, whose subtle but perceptible shifts in personality make him appear less sincere and less trustworthy than Crowe's Ben Wade.

Mangold makes the character of Dan Evans, played by Christian Bale, more complex than the relatively uncomplicated man Van Heflin played in the original. Evans has been given a more detailed background. He is now a wounded veteran of the Civil War who walks with a limp and expresses bitterness at the way the Army treated him after he received his war wound. Helfin's Dan Evans is an independent and self-contained man whose nature is not to rely on others. Bale's Dan Evans is an alienated man who has consciously isolated himself from others and deliberately chosen not to rely on anyone but himself.

He is more determined, grim, and intense than the Evans of the original. At one point in the hotel room he tells Wade out of the blue, "I'm not a stubborn man," as if reading Wade's mind. Yet his controlled actions, his flat speech, his unchanging facial expression, in fact his entire demeanor, clearly telegraph that this is exactly what he is. He also talks at times about the need to create lawfulness in the frontier, to create and maintain order as a heritage for his sons, making him more of a disillusioned idealist than Heflin.

Mangold also significantly expands the roles of two supporting characters only sketchily defined in the Daves version. Evans's sons are older than in the previous version; they are now teenagers. And the older boy assumes the judgmental and rather condemnatory attitude toward Evans of the wife in the original. He sneaks after his father and Wade, showing up in Contention near the end, something the wife does in the 1957 version. This time he not only is present at the shoot-out but plays a crucial role in it.

In both versions of the movie, Wade's lieutenant in the gang is Charlie Prince. In the first version Prince is played by Richard Jaeckel and appears in only a handful of scenes. In the remake, though, Prince, now played by Ben Foster (Six Feet Under), has a much larger part. During the gang's pursuit of Evans and Wade it is Prince who commands the gang and plans its moves. He also has a much closer relationship with Wade.

His loyalty to Wade is almost obsessive, and it is possible that Mangold is suggesting a homoerotic component to Prince's idolatrous devotion to his leader. Crowe, in any case, seems to regard Prince as a surrogate son, so that in a way Prince becomes an evil counterpart to Evans's son, a most intriguing addition to the original plot. In the new version Prince is without question a psychopath, and Foster is quite effective at conveying this element of the character.

The most significant changes of all are to the movie's conclusion, which has been substantially refashioned by Mangold. In the original Evans and Wade successfully make it to the train, and in the last scene Wade says confidently, "I've escaped from Yuma before." The ending of Mangold's film is far different and far more convoluted, full of twists and turns, false endings, and unexpected reversals. Characters who survived in the original version die in this one. Through this and other changes to the ending, curious and unforeseen thematic symmetries that were not present in the 1957 version occur. Violence and murder by one character are balanced by the renunciation of violence and revenge by another. The senseless loss of one life is balanced by the deliberate sacrifice of another. And in the end former enemies inspire personal transformation in each other and return to their former lives with a greater understanding of one another and an altered set of values.

Not many remakes compare as favorably to the original movie as this one. especially when essential parts that made the original so effective in the first place have been altered. James Mangold's remake of 3:10 to Yuma, though, manages to avoid many of the pitfalls inherent in remaking a near-classic movie. It succeeds in being an accomplished and exciting film in its own right while successfully adding many nuances to the source material.

But as satisfying an experience as I found the remake, I ultimately prefer the original. I'm a strong believer in simplicity in storytelling combined with the suggestion of complexity in character and theme. Delmer Daves's version of 3:10 to Yuma—with its more compact structure, greater emphasis on psychology, more focused exploration of the interaction between Evans and Wade, and less ambiguous but still far from simplistic treatment of moral issues—is in the end the version for me.
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The 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma plays on Turner Classic Movies on Tuesday, September 2 at 3:00 p.m. (PDT).

2 comments:

Shawn Michel de Montaigne said...

I've been looking for this movie for some time now at the local Blockbuster. Of course, it's never there.

Thanks for the well-written review.

Ventilation Shaft said...

It's an excellent film. Bale and Crow are awesome. And I loved the small cameo by Luke Wilson.