At first glance, 3:10 to Yuma wears it’s spaghetti influence on it’s sleeve: from the operatic score, dramatic close ups and the power of money, the film seems to scream Leone. Or so I thought. The film makes a pivotal shift from an all out assault on capitalism (very much in the spirit of the spaghetti), to something wholly more American, at least in values. The change is noticeable but never jarring as thematically, it remains rather consistent. The value of money never falters, and to the end most of the characters are willing to sacrifice all but there life for it. At least two of the characters manage to transform though, and suddenly human dignity and self sacrifice become more important. These ideas reject entirely the mode de vie of the spaghetti, and encompass themes one would find in a Ford western, especially The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (a film that itself deals with the self-perpetuating mythology of the American western).
Despite being a remake, the film feels all together fresh and despite some notable homage takes itself as if it hadn’t been done before. It unfortunately does falter a moment or two, especially when it relies on some shoddy special effects, but thankfully the filmmakers were restrained. The film plays on the mythology of the West as a small time rancher enlists to help escort a famous outlaw to a train that will bring him to prison. The character’s motivation is not honour, or some call for greater justice… it’s not even adventure. It’s purely financial, and I would argue while it’s a quick way to get money to support his family but it is also motivated by selfish desire. I suppose some would call it need to assert masculinity, but even Ben Wade (Crowe) alludes to the selfishness of leaving behind a beautiful family for just a few dollars, however much they are needed. Of course though, later in the film his stance changes somewhat, but I don’t think it ends up defending masculine assertion so much as our primary need for dignity, something that money more often than not takes away from the best of us.
As can be expected the main interest of the film is Ben Wade; the infamous outlaw. Even today, the outlaw is an idealised character of lore. Not seen as a “murderer”, he is appreciated as a rebel of the olden days much like James Dean or Marlon Brando in the Wild One. The film tries valiantly to play with the audience’s conception and show the cruel brutality of Crowe’s character. Early in the film he shoots someone in the throat, and only a dozen minutes later he murders someone with a dinner fork. At the same time though they try to absolve him of his actions, as he has a troubled past and this is how he must survive. At the very least the film doesn’t make him out to be a sadist despite his lack of remorse of his crimes. He doesn’t take pleasure in killing, and on some level understands what he is doing is not right. This is balanced against his rival the bounty hunter, who’s role is thematically significant even if his presence is downsized. Ben Wade tells the story of how our Bounty Hunter once gunned down an entire crowd of women in children, and his lack of remorse and the hypocrisy of calling himself a religious man. Instead of denying the accusation, he admits to it, but maintains he did nothing wrong. The scene is eerie, and reveals the layers of the genre, as it isn’t simply a case of “white hat” vs. “black hat” as we have been led to believe.
These scenes, among others work so well because Crowe proves once again that he is one of the strongest actors of his generation. Wade is allowed to be human, we understand him and empathise with him even if he revolts us. He is afforded the power of eloquence, which was a prized trait in Ancient Greece that only the bravest and most respected heroes had. Again playing on the idea of hero and villain and it’s place within mythology (American mythology or otherwise). As good as he is with a weapon, he’s even better with words. When you expect him to sneer he smiles, and even at his worst he manages to be somewhat upbeat about everything he does. The film makes a point in saying he is no better or worse than the people who are taking care of him, he is just more talented and on the wrong side of the law. This ranks among my favourite performances of the year, and to hear people complain that an Australian shouldn’t play an American is ludicrous, especially if you actually see the film.
I hope to see (aside from The Assassination of Jesse James) a resurgence in this genre, one of my personal favourites. If this is any indication of the quality that the rest of the films will be held to, I don’t think I will be disappointed.