A Classic Western and its Modern Refashioning, Complete with Freud, Cynicism and Melodrama

by Clive Sinclair

Clio acknowledges with gratitude the permission of the Times Literary Supplement, September 19, 2007, to reprint this article.

The 3.10 to Yuma first puffed out of the depot back in 1953, when it appeared as a short story in Dime Western. Set in Contention, Arizona, it concentrates on two men awaiting the same train; Paul Scallen, deputy marshal of nearby Bisbee, and Jim Kidd, road agent of no fixed abode. The one is escorting the other to Yuma, where he is due to serve a five-year sentence for his crimes. Both remain firmly in role, despite the outlaw's best efforts to persuade his unwanted guardian to shirk his duty. As the hours pass, Kidd's gang reconvenes in the street outside. Scallen is left with a stark choice: to act with mauvaise foi (that is, to place existence before essence); or unilaterally to embrace engagement, with its likely cost. Needless to say, he opts for the latter. When you think about it, isn't "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" existentialism in a nutshell?

Anyway, the chemin de fer turns out to be the chemin de la liberté for at least one of the protagonists.

If you consider the comparison far-fetched the author would probably second your opinion. When Elmore Leonard spoke about his creation at the National Film Theatre (where the 1957 movie of the story was screened last May), his main interest was the fee he received for it (two cents per word). Later, he was able to add $4,000 to the basic $90, when the movie rights were sold to Columbia. Of the film, Leonard had this to say: ". . . I was very pleased with it. They had to add about twenty minutes to a half hour onto the front end of the picture because a 45- hundred-word short story isn't going to get you very far in a feature. However, they did fine, they did a good job in adding on and I was very, very pleased with the picture". The man given the responsibility of turning a tightly focused and "relentless" (Leonard's word) chamber piece (most of which takes place in Room 207 of the Republic Hotel) into a ninety-minute horse opera was Halsted Welles. His solution remains a thing of beauty. He simply changed the occupation of the story's hero from deputy to rancher. He also changed his name from Paul Scallen to Dan Evans. Likewise, Jim Kidd became Ben Wade.

They first meet not in some courthouse, but when Wade and his henchmen use the rancher's meagre herd to stop the stage they intend to rob. Tracking the cattle with his two boys, Evans is a helpless spectator as the crime is committed and the driver shot. That moment - the total eclipse of Bob Moons - conditions all that follows. Moons grabs one of the robbers, holds a gun to his head, and says something like "Stop, or he gets it". Wade responds by first shooting his partner in crime, then the exposed Moons.

On hearing her husband's description of the events Alice Evans is unable to conceal her disappointment: "It seems terrible that something bad can happen, and all anybody can do is stand by and watch". To which her husband replies: "Lots of things happen when all you can do is stand by and watch". But his wife remains unconvinced: "No, but to have you stand by, and have the boys watching". She doesn't mean to call her husband a coward, but that is the message he gets. To make matters worse, the ranch is failing, for want of rain, and for want of $200 to buy access to water. And so when $200 is offered to anyone willing to escort Ben Wade (now shackled) to Contention, Dan Evans volunteers.

Once there, the story couples smoothly with Leonard's original. One addition of note is the fact that Evans and Wade are assigned the bridal suite. If they are a couple, then Van Heflin's homely Dan Evans must be the bride, and Glenn Ford's cocksure Wade the groom. As time passes, however, the roles slowly reverse, until the climactic moment when Evans must run the gauntlet of Wade's men in order to get his prisoner to the station. He uses the same tactic that failed Bob Moons. The difference being that Wade's gang won't shoot the boss. So the question is: will Wade duck, or will he run with Evans? Either way, Evans is redeemed.

In his book Existentialism and Humanism, Sartre denies that people are born cowards or heroes. Au contraire, existentialists believe that "the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. What counts is the total commitment, and it is not by a particular case or particular action that you are committed altogether". Of course, Sartre was not thinking about 3.10 to Yuma, though his words apply; as much to the movie, as to the story from which it derives.

Just before the lights dimmed at the NFT, Leonard also revealed that Columbia were planning to celebrate the movie's fiftieth anniversary, not with a re-release, but with a remake. Tom Cruise was in line to take Glenn Ford's role, and Eric Bana to replace Van Heflin. James Mangold would direct. "I'm sure that the new version will be changed quite a bit", added Leonard. "Tom Cruise, I'm told, is asking for rewrites . . . you know, that's Hollywood, that's what happens out there." Leonard was right about the director, and about the rewrites, but not about the cast. Instead of Cruise and Bana, there's Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. What prompted these changes I do not know. But I do know that there was reason for optimism in the choice of Mangold. Had he not modelled Cop Land (his second feature) on 3.10 to Yuma, and named its hero Freddy Heflin in honour of Van? If only he hadn't hired Michael Brandt and Derek Haas as his scriptwriters. In the Production Notes, Brandt is quoted as saying: "We all loved the original, and we wanted to figure out a way to make it for modern audiences. Jim's focus was, 'Let's make it gritty. Let's make it real'". Haas, for his part, calls Crowe's character, "tough and glamorous, the equivalent of a modern rock star". The truth is that if you put a new engine on old tracks you'll get but one thing: derailment.

 

The movie opens with a shot of Bale's two boys in bed: one is coughing, the other is reading a nineteenth-century precursor of Dime Western, in which bad men like Ben Wade are mythologized. In most "modern" Westerns with an eye to "reality" (Unforgiven being a prime example), this would be a sure sign to expect a rude awakening. Such expectations are confounded the moment Crowe appears; he is wearing designer togs (fetchingly distressed) topped off with a daft hat, and sketching a raptor. From those artistic heights he descends into the valley, to rob the stage and plug poor Bob Moons. Instead of being a moment of significance, and some solemnity, the stage-driver's death is merely the occasion for a James Bond-style quip.
Instead of subtlety, crudity now crows. This is exemplified in the scene - common to both movies - set around the dinner table at the Evans ranch. The family's unwelcome guest of honour is Ben Wade, handcuffed, and en route to Contention. In the first version, Heflin notices that Ford is having difficulty in cutting his meat, so offers to do it for him. In the new version, Crowe picks up the steak entire, and begins to gnaw at its edges. Only then does Bale do the Christian thing.

In both versions, Wade repays his host by attempting to seduce his wife. Ford and Crowe speak more or less the same lines. But only in Ford's case do they matter, being his primary means of enchantment. For Crowe they are an irrelevance, his appeal being essentially physical. His self-confidence is such that any woman who fails to respond has to be either dead or a lesbian.
Fifty years ago, no explanation was offered for Ford's errant behaviour. In the modernized version, however, Crowe is allowed a damaged psyche, the result of super-bad parenting. He reveals to his fellow diners that he had no father worthy of the name, and that his mother was little better. It seems she left him on a railway platform, with nought for comfort but a Bible, and instructed him to wait for her return. It took the eight-year-old three days to read the Holy Book from cover to cover, after which he recognized that he was alone in the world. I know his listeners existed in a pre-Freudian era, but surely one should have had the wit to ask: "Who taught you to read?". Of course, one can never be certain about such things, but it seems to me to be a bad case of false memory syndrome.

One person who doesn't doubt a word is Bale's older boy, the one already in thrall to blood-and-thunder fiction. In Crowe, he sees the heroic father-figure of his dreams. How can his real father, a born loser, compete? Bale is handsome rather than homely, but he is a cripple, having lost a foot in the recent Civil War. As a result, he limps in life, and (it's safe to infer) he limps in bed, too. I suspect the injury could also be an example of the Chester Effect, named after the character in Gunsmoke - played by Dennis Weaver - who was forced to adopt a limp to ensure that he would never appear more manly than Matt Dillon.

Having dined, Heflin and Ford complete the journey to Contention uneventfully. Bale and Crowe take a more colourful route, which requires them to beat off Apaches, and the railway police (one of whom has a personal grudge against Crowe). Being "modern" (and therefore enlightened), the movie demonstrates how these villainous police exploit their Chinese labourers. When Crowe falls into their hands they torture him, Abu Ghraib-style. This scene has no function other than to add a frisson of "relevance". Besides, it is negated when Crowe is rescued, and a bundle of dynamite cast into the tunnel behind them, killing both pursuers and innocent Chinese alike. But now they are just expendable extras. At no time are we asked to count them as collateral damage.

The real casualty of all this carnage is the movie. The scene which should be its long and suspenseful central act is reduced to an episode between gunfights. By the end, the only aspect of modernity that remains is cynicism. Crowe's henchmen offer the armed citizens of Contention $200 for shooting Bale or anyone foolish enough to assist him. Why? So that there will be more people for Bale to shoot. As he sprints towards the station with his captive, his prosthetic foot seems to become flesh again. At any rate he is able to leap from tall buildings and hit the ground running. But this apparent return to full manhood is quickly undermined by a sentimental twist worthy of Victorian melodrama. No existential hero he. The movie's final moments ditch any pretence of reality, and confirm that it hero-worships villains as well as any penny dreadful. Bah!

cc TLS/Clive Sinclair

Times Literary Supplement Website