One classic, one good
The short story Three-Ten to Yuma by Elmore Leonard, an excellent little read (it’s collected in The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, 2004, which is very well worth a purchase) appeared in Dime Western Magazine in 1953. It’s only 15 pages and is, in that typically Leonard way, spare, stripped down and gritty. A Bisbee deputy, Paul Scallen, brings an outlaw into Contention, to the Republic Hotel, and awaits the 3:10 train to Yuma. The outlaw is not Ben Wade but one Jim Kidd (Mr Leonard got his revenge for the movie’s name-change in 1972 when he wrote the John Sturges-directed picture Joe Kidd). Charlie Prince is the only significant other character mentioned.
Both the 1957 film and the 2007 remake used the short story only as the bare bones for a far more complex plot. That’s fine. The movies are more inspired by the story than faithful filmings of it, and that’s perfectly acceptable, as Elmore himself, I am sure, would have agreed.
The first film version of the story was the fifth Western as director of Delmer Daves (sixth if you include Return of the Texan). He had debuted with the highly influential Broken Arrow in 1950, had helmed the less good Drum Beat for Alan Ladd in 1954, then done two excellent ones in 1956, The Last Wagon with Richard Widmark and Jubal with Glenn Ford. I’ll be talking more about Daves soon. It is in my view distinctly possible, though, that 3:10 to Yuma the year after was Daves’s very best Western. It is superb.
It might also have been the best Western of its star, Glenn Ford. He was more experienced in the genre, co-starring with William Holden in Texas in 1941, and was still going with a cameo in the TNT picture Border Shootout in 1990. He was one of the best Western actors of them all. We’ll also be looking at his Western career in the not-too-distant future. In 3:10 Ford plays the smiling and seductive villain Ben Wade with huge skill. In fact I don’t think anyone has ever played a sympathetic Western badman better.
In 1957, the screenplay was written by Halsted Welles, who would work again for Daves on the fine picture The Hanging Tree, with Gary Cooper, two years later. What Welles and Daves achieved above all in 3:10 was tension, inexorably building and building for 93 minutes.
The screenplay replaced the deputy with a stolid farmer, Dan Evans, played by Van Heflin, in some ways reprising his part in Shane four years before. There are Shane-like undertones in 3:10, for example when the charming gunman comes to the ranch, flirts with farmer Van Heflin’s wife and impresses his sons. Heflin was good in both – solid, gutsy, down-to-earth. Certainly he was just right for this part.
Many reviewers have also drawn comparisons between 3:10 and High Noon five years earlier but they bear repeating: the hero is left alone by the town to accomplish the dangerous task and the clock is ticking away till the deadline. They both have key times in their titles. They are not dissimilar visually either, with the brightly sunlit town and long shadows, all shot in strongly contrasting black and white. Lawton must have studied Floyd Crosby’s work in High Noon, but here even the interiors are naturally lit as sunlight floods in to the dark saloon from outside. There is interesting and intelligent picture composition, some of which you only notice after a third or fourth viewing. For example, the symmetrical beginning and ending: at the start we see a stagecoach, dust and drought-cracked land, while the final scenes are of a train, steam and a rainstorm.
The support acting in 1957 was top notch. I love Robert Emhart as fat Mr Butterfield, and Henry Jones as the brave town drunk Alex Potter is also excellent. Dependable badman Richard Jaeckel is henchman Charlie Prince. Leora Dana is the austere farmer’s wife of Van Heflin, a woman with real guts, and lovely Felicia Farr (another Columbia contract player, in her third Western for Daves in two years) is sadly smiling as the consumptive saloon girl that Wade knew in Dodge. It’s a short part but she is very moving. Daves was very good indeed at the subtly erotic.
There is , as there often was with Daves, the slight hint of subversion or radicalism. It’s only the barest suggestion this time, when the murdered stagecoach driver’s family bury him without bothering about a preacher. Daves’s West was secular and almost anti-clerical, just as it was anti-lawman. There is no good lawman in evidence at all in this picture, nor indeed in any of Daves’s Westerns. When they appear at all they are brutal or crooks.Sadly, some versions were censored and the scenes of Potter’s hanging body were cut. This was a pity because these scenes underline the sacrifice of the town drunk, the only citizen to stand up to the bad men, and they enhance the farmer’s courage. The shadow on the staircase wall of the hanging corpse is also visually very striking.As in The Last Wagon, there is the notion of a journey, the Anthony Mann-like idea of characters changing and developing as they move physically through time and space. There were actually several similarities in the Western careers of Daves and Mann.Unlike the 2007 version, this 3:10 to Yuma is not an action Western (Daves was never interested in the fastest-gun-in-the-West type of film) but rather an insightful personal drama in which each of the principals, curiously, envies the other’s lot and Wade and Evans gradually come to respect each other. It’s balanced, well-wrought, an ensemble piece. It could have been a play.
It’s a very fine film, in fact one of the best Westerns of the 1950s – and that’s saying a lot.
50th anniversary remake
The remake 50 years on, was a bigger, flashier picture that is really better viewed in a movie theater than on your TV at home. Both movies are discussed in the rather over-earnest tome The Philosophy of the Western, although the particular essay using these two films as a basis for discussion is a bit less pretentious than the others. The argument is that both pictures are good examples of basic liberalism inspired by John Locke, but that while the 1957 movie was redolent of cold war imagery and feelings, the newer one was more a capitalist story which emphasized property rights. Hmm, maybe.
There are of course the fairly superficial differences you note right away: the 2007 movie is thirty minutes longer and in color, and it uses special effects not available to Columbia in the 50s. Whereas in 1957 there is a discreet fade-out when the bandit seduces the girl in the saloon, in 2007 we see her naked in bed as he sketches her. The language in 2007 would never have got anywhere near the 1950s censors and piss, shit and fuck are commonplace (perhaps Deadwood had been an influence). The extra 30 minutes of the new movie are used to pad out the plot even more than the 1957 version, and the whole thing is brasher and noisier fifty years on. In 2007, the outlaws offer $200 to any townsman who guns down our hero; this allows there to be a huge final shoot-out against “thirty or forty guns” in the later film while the walk to the train was a more muted (and tense) affair in the original, with only the outlaws themselves doin’ the shootin’. Characters have been added, notably Pinkerton man Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), and the bumbling 50s drunk Alex Potter (Henry Jones) has been replaced by a would-be action hero Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk). More importantly, in 1957 the hero’s sons were two well-combed and well-behaved lads in a very minor part, while in 2007 the role of the elder son, William (the original rather biblical Matthew and Mark have become William and Mark), very well played by Logan Lerman, is vastly more important. In fact, he is central: the chief motivation for our hero’s courage is to shine in front of his son, which he does. The boy is also bolshier and more rebellious – much more like a 21st century teenager than a 1950s one.
But there are also great similarities between the two movies: both use some of the very same lines and scenes. The action in the saloon in Bisbee, for example, is almost word-for-word the same. The barmaid used to work for a blind Irishman in Leadville instead of Dodge, that’s all. In the 2007 version writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas added to the original Welles script. The story at the heart of both is identical: a solid farmer, desperate for money to save his ranch and support his family, agrees for $200 to escort a dangerous bandit to Contention to catch the afternoon train to Yuma Prison. In both pictures the hero is later freed from his obligations by his employers when it gets too dangerous but he goes ahead anyway on the Western principle of “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” – just that the price paid is higher in 2007 than it was in 1957, or in the original short story.As I have said, Van Heflin as the decent rancher and Glenn Ford as the charming scoundrel were truly fine in the film directed by Delmer Daves. In the original film, two real Americans were used (Heflin was born and brought up in Oklahoma and while Ford was born in Canada he moved to California at the age of eight and was a naturalized US citizen), both known for Western roles. However, in the film directed by James Mangold, the casting people got a New Zealand-born naturalized Australian and a Brit. These actors did a marvelous job with the accents (full marks also to their dialogue coaches) and with the roles in general. Russell Crowe plays Ben Wade with more menace and less charm than Ford did. He seems more dangerous and snake-like. He is certainly more murderous. Christian Bale (he had been the posh schoolboy in Empire of the Sun) has more grit than Heflin and is better with a gun. He has also acquired a Civil War back-story, including a false foot.
The role of outlaw chief’s sidekick, Charlie Prince, has been greatly expanded in the newer movie. Richard Jaeckel, always a good baddie, did a solid job in ‘57 but Ben Foster is perfectly splendid fifty years on. It’s a juicy part, of course. He is truly nasty and although Wade claims to be bad all the way through (otherwise he wouldn’t last a minute leading that band of cut-throats), we know that he actually has a small spark of decency in him. But Charlie Prince, now, not a bit of it. He absolutely hates railroad men and posses, Pinkertons and lawmen and, well, pretty well everyone, really, and gut-shoots them whenever possible.
Visually, the earlier film was superior. The black and white photography was positively glowing. The cinematography of the more recent film is by Phedon Papamichael and is good, certainly. The New Mexico locations (it was shot round Santa Fe) are enhanced by that lovely New Mexico light. The print I saw has a curious, almost yellowish wash to it. The Leonard story being set in Bisbee and Contention, the earlier film has perhaps the more authentic locations, around Old Tucson, with the classic saguaros of the Arizona desert.The later movie is more of a railroad picture. Mr Butterfield the stage line owner has become a railroad man; it’s the railroad trying to evict Dan Evans from his ranch (a bit of a cliché, that) and there are various scenes of railroad construction. The railroad is, of course, as per the conventions, grasping and ruthless. Its staff members are sadistic and racist, the idea being we don’t mind when they are shot down. By 2007 actual trains were big-budget affairs so a locomotive only makes a fairly perfunctory appearance, with a hundred yards of track and some fake smoke behind a building, which is kind of a pity for a railroad Western.
As to the ending, I am not going to discuss that here in case you haven’t seen either or both of the movies. Suffice it to say that they are different. I think I prefer the 2007 one, though the 1957 one was closer to the original story.
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times liked the 1957 picture: “A good, lively script has been written by Halsted Welles, and sharp, business-like direction has been contributed by Delmer Daves. What’s more, the whole thing is neatly acted.” Mr Crowther wasn’t sure about the ending but thought it a good Western overall. “Except that the ending is romantic and incongruous, in the face of what goes on, this is a first-rate action picture.”
One of Crowther’s successors, AO Scott, was slightly less enthusiastic in the same paper about the remake in 2007, calling it “a serviceable addition to the current western revival.” Comparing it with the original, he said, “If it is a lesser movie — more likely to be recalled as a moderately satisfying entertainment than remembered as a classic — that may be a sign of the times.” Scott added, “The action sequences in 3:10 to Yuma are effective and coherent, but it is ultimately the actors who carry the movie. The destination may be as familiar as the journey, but there are still some sights worth seeing along the way.”
That’s probably about right. 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma is a good, exciting, early 21st century Western, along the lines of Appaloosa or Open Range – that is, a straight, enjoyable, not very arty commercial picture which respects the conventions and which should be on any Western fan’s list. The 1957 one was one of the greatest examples of the genre, probably Glenn Ford’s and Delmer Daves’s best work, and the new one isn’t of that quality. But it’s still a pretty darn good film.
But you don’t have to choose. Watch both!