Sunday, 15 January 2012

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Dir. James Mangold
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Peter Fonda

What a difference fifty years make.

In 1957, the same year as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was released, another Western set in 1880s Arizona got great reviews – an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story by the name of 3:10 to Yuma. Fifty years later a remake by James Mangold opened in cinemas, and it is fascinating to compare this film with the earlier Gunfight

The plot centres on two very different characters: rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and outlaw leader Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). Down on his luck and with his land parched by drought Dan offers to form part of a deputised posse escorting the captured Wade, leader of a gang of ruthless robbers, to meet the prison train which will ferry him to prison and execution at Yuma. He does this for the salary of $200, which will help to pay off some of the debt he owes to local bigwig Hollander who wants his land for construction of the railroad. However, the remainder of Wade’s gang, now led by the cold-blooded but ferociously loyal Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) are still out there, and it is only a matter of time before they catch up with the outnumbered escort party to free their leader.

What this stew serves up is a tense and dramatic flight through Arizona from Bisbee to Contention City. And all the way through the camera focuses on these two different men – the desolate gaze of the one-legged rancher making one last throw of the dice and the sardonic calmness of the criminal who knows that help is coming.

In the world of Gunfight Evans would have been playing his part because it was the right thing to do. Here he only joins up for the promise of pay, money that could save his ranch. Hollander can torch Evans’s barn with impunity or stop up the watercourse before it crosses his fence-line, and there is nothing a law-abiding man can do to prevent him. In the world of Gunfight all the posse would have been acting out of their better natures, but here it is quite clear that the lines between the white hats and black hats are not so clear-cut. Grizzled Pinkerton agent McElroy (Peter Fonda) massacred Apache women and children. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), the representative of the railroad, is determined to press charges against Wade for his twenty-two robberies and $400,000 in damage to property; as Wade wryly comments: “Y’all notice he didn’t mention any of the lives I’ve taken?” Evans’s son William (Logan Lerman) is drawn towards the romance of the cowboy life. And in comparison Wade is not all bad, no matter how hard he tries to deny that fact. He is a cultured man, given to quoting from the Bible and sketching wildlife. He has a dangerous charm and an cool efficiency about his actions – after sizing up the attempted stagecoach robbery he quickly uses the available resources (Evans’s herd of cattle) to bring the action to a decisive close. It is he who saves the rest of the party from the Apache ambush and he who thinks of the way to cut off pursuit from the railroad camp. He uses the bare minimum of actions to bring about his ends. The contrast with bonny Charlie Prince in his swanky leather coat and his pistol twirling could not be greater. In the end, in this rough frontier, money talks louder than morals. The Contention marshals appear to guard Wade because Butterfield pays them to; when the odds no longer favour them they quit – as Butterfield does too. And meanwhile the townsfolk of Contention are far from the God-fearing peaceable folk Gunfight would have one believe populated the Old West; when Charlie promises $200 to anyone who shoots one of Wade’s guards they run to grab their rifles. Loyalties are easily bought. The man with the money calls the play. As Evans realises, when he was compensated for the loss of his leg during the war (compensation to the tune of $198.36), the government wasn’t paying him to make right his loss, they were paying him to make right their consciences. “They weren’t paying me to walk away, they were paying me so they could walk away.”

But when Dan alone remains to get Wade on that train the outlaw offers to increase his pay to $400, $1,000 even, money that could change his family’s life. But as the rains break in the distance over Bisbee Dan finds a new resolution. It is not about the money anymore, after all. It is about standing for something and acting as an example to his sons. Before he left he told his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) that he knew no one would think less of him for refusing the job, but only because no one could think less of him – “I’m tired of watching my boys go hungry. I’m tired of the way they look at me. I’m tired of the way that you don’t.” 

This sets up one hell of an explosive climax. As Evans runs Ben through town towards the station the entire city turns out to stop him. The action is fast and frenetic, like a shoot ‘em up computer game, as foes pop up from behind barrels, fire out of doorways, appear on roof tops. From the clock striking three exactly ten minutes of screen-time pass before 3:10, when the steam train to Yuma should pull into the station. Dan has made sure that the railroad representatives will take care of his family; now he just has his example to leave them. “Just you remember”, he tells his eldest son, “that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would.”

Stealing the show:
Charlie gets the drop on McElroy
I really liked this film. The camera loves Crowe and Bale. This is important because if they weren’t so strong at the centre of the story there would otherwise be a danger that Ben Foster, last seen as the creepy stranger in 30 Days of Night, might steal the show with his flamboyant portrayal of the deadly Charlie Prince. I found it hard to tear my eyes away from any single scene, be it the stagecoach hold-up at the start, Wade’s cat-and-mouse conversations with his captors, the perfect setting at the railroad labour camp (which featured an unexpected little cameo from Luke Wilson), or the final hour in Contention as the clock ticked oh-so-slowly down towards 3:10.

What have I learnt about Arizona?
Despite the tales Hollywood has spun there were no good guys and bad guys. The folks that made the money could do whatever they wanted, and people could soon devolve to their baser natures for money or revenge. Yet there was loyalty, such as that shown by Charlie towards Ben, and there was honour, as Ben finally shows at the station. And there was a pecking order. Apaches could be massacred. Chinese could work as slaves. That was fine, because they weren’t held to have the same value as a white person; and even then the lives of whites were cheaply lost.

Can we go there?
Hell, if you made it as far as Tombstone it seems only right that you continue another few miles to Bisbee. Old Bisbee is now a successful, gay-friendly artists’ colony and tours can be made of the old Copper Queen Mine on the edge of town. You can also hike to Contention City – or what remains of it. It was abandoned not long after the film was set, and all that remains now are a few crumbling walls. It is easier to get there from Tombstone than it is from Bisbee. And finally, even though the film never shows Yuma, tourists are welcome to visit the notorious Yuma Territorial Prison the hell-hole on the Colorado River that housed inmates up until 1909 and is now a State Historical Park. In fact, on the day of writing, the Prison was housing a ‘Gathering of Gunfighters’ – maybe even the ghosts of Ben Wade’s gang. You can even get there on the train – the nearest station to Contention now is Benson, half-way between Tombstone and Tucson.

With all this great history lying around in southern Arizona it’s a real shame that the wonderful location scenes that served to add so much more flavour than Gunfight’s sound-stages were actually shot in northern New Mexico, around Santa Fe. The Bonanza Creek Ranch was used as the site of Bisbee in the film (it also appeared in The Man from Laramie, Easy Rider and Young Guns). Contention City was created from scratch at the Cerro Pelon Ranch in North Galisteo; the owner (fashion designer Tom Ford) requested that the set be left in place afterwards. The Apache ambush took place in the Diablo Canyon west of Santa Fe. The Chinese labour camp was sited at the Gilman Tunnels on State Road 485 in the Santa Fe National Forest. Another shooting location was well north of the city at the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu which was formerly home to artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Other films shot there include City Slickers, Wild Wild West (where it stood in for Utah), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (where it stood in for Nevada) and Cowboys and Aliens (also set in Arizona).

Overall Rating: 5/5

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