“Tommy was stupid.” That’s part of the short eulogy that poor Tommy Darden gets after being killed by his boss, the notorious outlaw Ben Wade. As his fellow gang members drink whiskey in his memory, Wade can notice they are uneasy. To reassure them, he quotes a passage of scripture to justify the murder.
It’s a significant clue to one of the major themes of “3:10 to Yuma”: the conflict between honor and survival, between nobility and harsh reality. The protagonist Dan Evans, played by Christian Bale, must decide whether to take the shortcuts repeatedly offered to him in order to ensure the prosperity of his farm, or to earn his family’s respect by bringing a notorious bandit to justice.
There is a mix of both paths in Dan’s actions throughout the film. The first time he encounters Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), he is shown great mercy. The second time, Wade gives him a lot of money. However, Dan helps capture him, and is subsequently hired by a railroad employee to make sure he gets Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison.
However, Wade is just as dangerous without his gun. He has a seductive personality, and uses his words cunningly to inspire equal measures of awe, guilt, curiosity, and fear. Dan sees just what Wade is capable of in both violent and more subtle ways. What starts out as a practical plan to save the family farm ends as a mission to ensure that justice is served. It might be futile, but like in most westerns, honor is a powerful thing.
The filmmakers, led by director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”), seem to be at a similar crossroads. Some portions of the film seem to espouse the romantic notions of the West seen in John Ford or Howard Hawks films. After all, it’s a remake of a Glenn Ford western from 1957. But with such scenes as a high speed stagecoach chase akin to an armored car robbery in a modern action film, it’s clear that a modern sensibility is vying for exposure.
Oddly enough, the duality works. The western has seemed to be in a holding pattern for a few years now, waiting for someone to give it direction. This film won’t be seen as revolutionary or groundbreaking by any means, but maybe it’s just what the industry needs to prove that there is still vitality in the genre after all. There may not be many surprises here, but is that what westerns are really about?
Perhaps it’s wise that the main goal of the filmmakers seems to be to create a solid, entertaining period piece. In that, they succeed wonderfully. Bale and Crowe deliver their usual great performances. Other notable turns come from Peter Fonda as a hired gun and Ben Foster as Wade’s right hand man.
All of this comes down to the usual frantic gunfight at the end. It’s a furious and violent scene, more like “Rio Bravo” than “High Noon”. What will distinguish it from other movies, however, is the fact that the turning point comes from an emotional decision, rather than a practical one. In a genre of archetypes and unshakeable men, it’s refreshing to see a character change. Or does he?