Monday, April 14, 2008

Bandits de jour

3.10 to Yuma (U.S., 2007) directed by James Mangold

I am developing, oddly enough, a disposition for Westerns, especially the kind of film that turn Westerns on their head. Three-Ten to Yuma was originally a short story written by Elmore Leonard in 1953 and then made into a film in 1957 by Delmer Daves with Glenn Ford; it was re-made in 2007 by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Girl Interrupted, Copland). Set shortly after the Civil War, it appeals to those of us with a weakness for bandits (and Russell Crowe).

What is it about the nature of storytelling and humanity that we feel compelled to paint bandits into something more honorable than what they probably are or ever were? I see the same tendency here as I do in my own writing about the bandit Salvatore Giuliano in Sicily, or fiction about the outlaw Jesse James in America or the bushranger Ned Kelly in Australia. All three of whom I have read about, thought about, seen films about, written about.

Dan Evans (played by the talented Christian Bale), is a struggling and honest rancher with two sons and a pretty wife (Gretchen Mol), who was seriously wounded in the Civil War, and who gets unwittingly embroiled in the capture of the bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). Evans is a hero in the tradition of Gary Cooper in the 1952 classic High Noon; he is seen as weak and flawed but righteous, and who triumphs morally in the end with a little help.

Ben Wade, the charismatic and extremely dangerous leader of a band that has committed 22 stage coach robberies and stolen $400,000, not to mention murdered a number of men in the process, is captured in Bisbee, Arizona (a real town, and in a later Elmore Leonard novel LA Confidential, Lynn Bracken, a Veronica Lake look-a-like beauty originates from Bisbee).

Dan Evans, whose horses were stolen by Ben Wade and his gang, stumbles on to the capture of Wade by bounty hunters and marshals and then volunteers to assist in having Wade transported back to prison for $200. Dan's son, the teenaged William (played with cocky self-assurance by Logan Lerman), has a great deal of contempt for his father Dan whom he perceives to be ineffectual. He persuades the men that he should come along.

They are heading for Contention city which has a train at 3.10 that will go to the Yuma prison, a real prison in Arizona operating from 1876-1909. Wade is to be hanged. The marshals send a coach decoy in the opposite direction with someone dressed as Wade. Wade's minion and second in command, the sociopathic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), who is possibly more vicious than Wade himself, sets fire to the coach and the unfortunate man bearing Wade's distinctive hat as the decoy, after forcing him to reveal where Wade is really heading.

You may remember the actor Ben Foster from his role as the frightening junkie, wannabe Nazi thug in Alpha Dog (2006) whose younger brother is kidnapped then killed by a strung out teenagers who are trying to extract a ransom from him. He plays a comparable role here: volatile, dangerous, possibly insane.

Ben Wade, slippery and charismatic as only Crowe can be, manages to seduce most women in his path, stabs a sleeping man in the throat with a fork while handcuffed, and creates a great deal of havoc while being transported. He escapes more than once and this leads to the death of a number of men, of varying moral integrity.

The story is rife with a number of individuals of varying morality, some "good" (marshals, bounty hunters) and some bad (Wade's band led by Charlie Prince, and other men simply with a desire to kill Wade or law enforcement officials for their own profit). Because this is Elmore Leonard, the good are not merely "good" nor are the bad merely "bad".

Conversely, the "heroic" rancher Dan Evans is seen as weak, though essentially honorable, and victimized by larger forces which make it difficult for him to sustain his ranch and therefore his family. The bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), a self-avowed devout Christian, pursues criminals for a living yet, we are told, has gunned down dozens of defenseless Apache Indian women and children and then thrown them into a pit presumably for the crime of being Indian. The marshals in Contention city abandon Dan Evans at a crucial moment when they see that they are outnumbered by the bad guys.

Ben Wade, killer, thief and gang leader, is sensitive enough that sketches birds and naked women whom he has easily seduced but is decent enough to return horses that he has stolen from Dan Evans. He also extends a service to Dan so that he will not be humiliated in front of his son.

Evans and Wade, with a whole lot of law enforcement, end up in a hotel room in Contention city waiting for the 3.10 to Yuma. Wade's posse enters the town and you can imagine the end when Wade's posse bribes the townspeople to shoot any, or all, of the officers who subsequently flee. I won't spoil the ending but it is shocking and very affecting.

Best line of the film: after Ben Wade kills a man for insulting his mother, he says, "Even bad men love their mamas".

Second best line from minion Charlie Prince:
"Is that a posse ya got there?" "Yep," the men respond. He shoots the men one by one. "I hate posses," he sighs resignedly.

Ain't that the truth ...


NigelBeale said...

Anything with Russell Crowe in it is going to be good.

I loved how, at the beginning, his character sat on his horse sketching that eagle...this told me, in ways that reams of dialogue never could, that here was more than your average moronic stagecoach robber.

Anonymous said...

Nigel, Thank you for commenting ... I love your blog and think that I will be referring to it and enjoying it quite a bit. I appreciate the seriousness with which you approach your topic. In a blogosphere filled with dreck it's always a wonderful surprise to find such thoughtful writing.

I was searching yesterday for info on James Wood specifically his review of Zadie Smith's Autograph Man back in 2002.