At the Movies

Michael Wood

The reasons usually given for the death or dearth of westerns is that the genre deals in stark old allegories of good and evil and we are all moral sophisticates now who know the world isn’t like that. If this is our explanation, we don’t have an explanation at all. The world is more infested with allegories of good and evil than at any time since the last crusade, and that wasn’t what the genre was ever about anyway. Westerns are about the law, its absence, abeyance or arrival, and about what forms of behaviour are possible without it or outside it: what chances of decency, justice and self-respect; what varieties of licence, too.

The simultaneous release of a DVD version of Delmer Daves’s classic 3.10 to Yuma (1957) and James Mangold’s remake of the same film – there is even a trailer for the new movie among the special features of the DVD of the old one – makes you wonder whether Hollywood is dedicating itself to pure nostalgia or pure denial. Is the past all we have, or is it so dead we can repeat it as if it never happened?

The new movie doesn’t look or feel a bit like the old one. It’s rich in colour, noisy, crowded with detail and extra characters, and a lot more people die. There’s plenty of blood to look at, and a longer glimpse of Peter Fonda’s entrails than most people will be eager to have (he’s a bounty hunter who’s been shot during the robbery of a coach). In the fantasy style required of current cinema, his body, open entrails notwithstanding, shows no sign of human vulnerability: as soon as the bullet is removed he is riding the trail again with the rest of the boys. Until Russell Crowe kills him, that is. ‘I always liked you, Byron,’ Crowe says to his old enemy, ‘but you always did talk too much.’ Everyone in westerns talks too much, while carefully cultivating a myth of taciturnity. A matter of diction and idiom, perhaps. The new movie is incoherent at the end, too, where the old one is impeccably poised in a mystery.

Still, beneath all the differences, the contours and issues of both films remain the same, and both are faithful in their way to the Elmore Leonard story where they started, which means the new work also has its share of moral suspense and complexity. I can’t tell the end of the story – not the same in the new movie, though all the ingredients of the old formulation are there – without giving too much away, but the long set-up is interesting enough in itself.

A poor rancher, Dan Evans (Van Heflin/Christian Bale), father of two boys, husband of a loyal but tired wife, witnesses the coach robbery I’ve just mentioned. This is carried out by a gang led by the notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford/Russell Crowe). Wade lets Evans and the boys go, but keeps their horses so they won’t rush off to inform on him. The boys are distressed by their father’s impotence, and his wife too on their return seems to feel there was something he could have done but didn’t. In the new movie, he has an artificial leg to add to the symbolism, having lost the real one in a moment of friendly fire in the Civil War, and in the old movie there is a fine piece of dialogue which makes clear the problem is not his masculinity or his failure to get killed just to impress the boys, but his grim, defeated habit of accepting all bad realities – drought, loss of his cattle, robbery, murder – as unalterable facts of life, as features of a life that can’t get better.

All this changes when Wade, lingering in town for a little sex with the bar-girl in the saloon, is arrested, and Evans, in return for money that will help him pay his debts and put the ranch back to work, volunteers for a posse to accompany him to a town on the distant railroad line. The town is called Contention, and that’s where they can pick up the 3.10 to Yuma, a city where Wade can be judged and hanged. The assumption is that if they can get Wade to the train, the story will be over; and conversely that anywhere between here and the train, including the half-built streets of Contention itself, there will always be the chance that Wade’s gang can rescue him. Wade knows this, of course, and both Ford and Crowe smile their way confidently through most of their respective movies. The smile has real charm in both cases, and is also a little creepy, since it is the smile of someone who thinks the law is a fiction or a fantasy, too far away from the world he inhabits: a train journey away from a place he believes they’re not even going to get to. It’s not at all clear what we’re doing when we find this character likeable. Good job it’s only a movie.

By the end, Wade and Evans are on their own, first in a hotel room and then crossing the town towards the railtrack. Wade has attacked Evans physically, taunted him with his poverty, tried to bribe him and finally come to admire his stubbornness, or perhaps his loyalty to what has come to be his idea of himself. Evans insists he is not stubborn and it is obvious that he is not staying with his task only for the money. Both movies are admirably discreet about whatever complex motivation keeps these men going, and makes them do what they do. The end of the old movie suggests a person can do strange things out of admiration. The end of the new one suggests that when bad guys get sentimental, they merely change the direction of their violence. In both cases, though, distinct codes of honour are at work at the edges of the law.

Russell Crowe is stealthy and entertaining as Ben Wade, and far more convincingly violent than Glenn Ford. On the other hand, the director has to keep showing us Crowe doing sensitive drawings – a small hawk, a sleeping woman, Evans himself – so that we know he’s not just a thug. Delmer Daves left all this to Glenn Ford’s face. Mangold might well have done the same with Crowe, I think, but he didn’t. As Dan Evans, Christian Bale is gaunt and anguished where Van Heflin was rugged and bewildered, but both versions of the character work very well. And in both movies Charlie Prince, Wade’s psychotic but furiously loyal sidekick, keeps threatening to steal the show – and here Ben Foster is even more impressive in the part than Richard Jaeckel.

But the key performance, which makes the earlier movie the small masterpiece the new one can’t compete with, is that of Glenn Ford. David Thomson says Ford was ‘ill at ease’ in this film, and the thought makes sense at first, especially if we remember Ford as the beleaguered teacher in Blackboard Jungle or the cop driven wild by grief in The Big Heat. Then we recall his role in Gilda, a snarling, angry hater of the very woman he loves, and we think again. Thomson himself says Ford plays ‘an uncommonly nasty and twisted hero’ here. He is both slyly amiable and entirely ruthless, and we spend a lot of our viewing time trying to put these pieces of his character together. Is his charm just smugness, the knowledge that the law can’t touch him? Not just freedom from the law, but a sort of delighted intellectual superiority to it and all its workings? Or does the charm have to do with an actual curiosity about other people, a willingness to let them live as long as they don’t get in his way? He certainly doesn’t have any distaste for killing or any remorse about it. Perhaps he just thinks no one, himself or another, should die when they don’t have to. We, I think, are the ones who are ill at ease, and this is the success of the performance. We can’t sentimentalise Ford in this film – or, indeed, anywhere. He is too inward and withdrawn for that, a man who will never let us into his secrets. But we can’t dislike him either. He’s not mean: he doesn’t care enough about his enemies to be mean – in stark contrast to Crowe as Wade, killing Peter Fonda because he made a remark about Wade’s mother. Ford’s Wade has a mind and no conscience, and it can sometimes seem as if our problem is the reverse: plenty of conscience and not nearly enough mind.