When your work spreads as far across the digital range as mine does, it can occasionally provide a nice bit of synergy. Or repetition. It depends on which word you want to use, I suppose. After watching Hombre last week, I resolved I would seek out as many of Elmore Leonard’s Western adaptations as I could. The first on my list was the original 3:10 t0 Yuma, which I’ve never managed to watch in its entirety.
And what happens? I joined Matt Raub on The Flickcast this week, and was called upon to recommend a movie. With Russell “Robin Hood” Crowe on the brain and Leonard queued up for Western Wednesday, only one came to my screen-burnt brain: James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. I promptly kicked myself after. Talk about beating a dead horse, and using up your good material.
But it couldn’t have worked out better. Delmer Daves’ 3:10 To Yuma is an entirely different animal than Mangold’s, and neither of them have much in common with Leonard’s original short story. If you’re a film nerd (and especially if you’re an aspiring director or screenwriter), you couldn’t find an easier compare and contrast exercise than this.
Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma is, like Mangold’s, all about proving your masculinity. His Dan Evans isn’t the bitter and scarred rancher played by Christian Bale. He’s just a quiet guy, struggling to make ends meet, and one who prefers keeping his head down.
This aversion to violence and trouble actually earns him the disdain of his wife, Alice, over his sons. When Evans comes home sans horses and telling a feeble tale of watching Ben Wade kill a man and rob a stagecoach, she’s mortified. She’s ashamed of her poverty, too. She wants a man of action.
Evans earns the disdain of his townsmen, too. They want his help in capturing and transporting Wade, but Evans doesn’t really want anything to do with such nonsense. It’s none of his business. Only when it profits him — $200 to any man willing to accompany Wade to Contention — does he finally rouse himself. He needs the money too badly to fuss about the danger.
Mangold’s film turns the journey to Contention into something pretty epic — Wade picks off a few of his guards, escapes once, helps his captors fight off Apache, Evans’ young son joins in the fun — but Daves’ film just plunks the straggling bunch in town. His film is far more of a Faustian tale (giving the town’s name an even apter meaning) with Wade wheedling Evans, trying to tempt the stolid rancher into letting him go.
Evans gets sweatier and sweatier, snapping enough to engage in some fisticuffs, but ultimately holding fast to his resolve. The battle of wills turns it into something greater than money. Now Evans is determined to make it all mean something, and be the one man who stands up for justice.
The High Noon and McCarthy parallels are pretty thick, particularly when Alice shows up to try and sway him from his deadly path. Throwing a pleading female into the mix gives it a pretty heavy Old Testament interpretation, too. You almost want to stamp “Forbidden Fruit” on her Victorian forehead.
Many people were frustrated by Mangold’s ending. Few seem to understand why Wade suddenly chooses to side with Evans. For one, he’s a sociopath with a particular code of honor. Secondly, the film makes it obvious that Wade cherishes his outlaw legend. His list of exploits — which include two escapes from Yuma prison — are long and admired.
He also understands Dan’s desperate and pathetic need to prove himself to his sons. They connect on that level of masculinity. Making it to the train benefits them both. Wade turns on his gang because they mock Evans, and show themselves to be common thugs.
Those who were baffled by Mangold’s choices would be utterly bewildered by Daves’ film. It has a lower body count, but Wade makes the exact same decision, albeit with a friendlier explanation. He doesn’t like debts, and Dan saved his life, so he’s willing to ride the train. “Besides, I escaped Yuma once before.” Evans just grins and says his job is over, so he could care less what Wade does. It’s a shrug that really undoes his “I want to be Gary Cooper! Justice must stand!
They lynched my friend!” speech to Alice. Apparently, his lynched friend doesn’t matter so much once the train is chugging towards Yuma. Apparently it doesn’t matter to the universe, either. In a heavy-handed bit of symbolism, God / The Universe / karma rewards the good man Evans with rain as he proudly waves to Alice. Contend with the devil, overcome your own greed, and you receive nature’s bounty … even if evil is like “Whatever, I’ll win again another day!”
Now, both versions of 3:10 to Yuma have their fans. IMDB is litttered with battles as to which version is better; Daves’ fans are particularly passionate. I prefer the remake. For all its explosions, bullets, and blood, it’s a far more intimate story. Bale’s Dan Evans is someone who can be kicked no lower.
It eats at him that someone as slick and slimy as Wade can profit while he abides by the law, and his family sickens and starves. He watches his son grow starry-eyed at Wade’s violence, riches, and loose women. He sees his wife fall under the spell of a stronger and more charismatic man.
This is his last chance to salvage and justify his hardscrabble life, and he holds onto it with a stubborn determination that even wins over Wade. Personally, I prefer that heart to the heavy-handed moralizing of Daves’ film, even if it doesn’t lend itself as well to a theme song.
(Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma is on Netflix Instant Watch, like most of the Western Wednesdays before it.)