I guess, like everything else, the circumstances in which you view a movie will affect your perception of it. I just rewatched the 2007 3:10 to Yuma the other day having already reacquainted myself with the 1957 version the previous night. Now, I’ve seen the original many times and always held it in high regard although it’s not without its faults. So when I went to see the remake, during its theatrical run, I knew that the central story was a strong one and I was curious to see what it would turn out like. At the time I came away thinking that I had just seen a moderately entertaining but imperfect film. In short, I wasn’t overly displeased. The thing is though, I hadn’t seen the original for a few years at that point. Viewing the two versions so close together has forced me to alter my appraisal of the remake somewhat.
The plot of both films is derived from a short story by Elmore Leonard, and tells of a struggling Arizona rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin in the original, Christian Bale in the remake) who witnesses a stage robbery carried out by notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford in the original, Russell Crowe in the remake). When Wade is later captured Evans volunteers to escort him to the town of Contention and put him on the titular 3:10 to Yuma state prison. Evans hopes that the money he earns from this will be enough to see him and his family through the drought that’s crippling his ranch. There follows a battle for Evans’ soul as Wade tries to buy, persuade and cajole the desperate rancher into letting him go while the clock counts down and the threat of attack by the outlaw gang draws ever nearer.
Those are the necessarily common elements, but if a remake is to have any purpose it must add to or change certain aspects of the original. Firstly, the 2007 version expands the story and runs about a half hour longer, most of this extra time being used to depict the journey to Contention and introduce more characters. This doesn’t really come off successfully for, despite being crammed with incident, it simply serves to slow down the central thrust of the story: the conflict and relationship between Evans and Wade. Where the original cut straight to the chase, the remake forces the viewer to sit through a lot of implausible action which seems to exist merely to dispose of a few superfluous characters. By the time Evans and Wade reach Contention and hole up in the hotel the momentum has been lost and the tension levels have dropped. The DVD of the 2007 movie contains an extra feature which carries the title An Epic Explored, and that tells a tale. This is essentially a small, intimate story based around two men and covering a short period of time. The 1957 version succeeds admirably in telling this story, whereas the remake has ambitions to be something altogether grander yet falls short of fulfilling them.
The other major difference in the two films is a change in emphasis and tone. The first movie presented Dan Evans as a man in a bad spot and dogged by ill fortune, but there was nothing pathetic or defeatist about him and the viewer can feel for him without ever being asked to. The new Dan Evans is, we are told over and over, a cringing loser who manages to elicit only pity from his captive rather than respect. In fact, even his family are contemptuous of him - Van Heflin’s distraught wife turned up in Contention to beg him to drop the matter and return home while Christian Bale’s other half disappears from the story early on like she just doesn’t give a damn what happens to him, and I’m not sure if I blame her. The ‘57 movie showed Evans’ two boys to be a couple of nice respectful kids, while the ‘07 one gives us a surly brat who never misses an opportunity to bad-mouth his father, regardless of the company they’re in, and left this viewer yearning to see him on the receiving end of a good hiding. All told, there are far too many jarringly modern touches to the remake; when Bale’s wife upbraids him for not making decisions together and his son throws another insult his way I was taken out of the film completely. Such moments defy all logic in terms of time and place - it’s akin to seeing a bunch of brawling cavemen interrupted by one of their number saying “Wait a minute fellas, surely we can talk this through like civilised men.”
Delmer Daves is a director who I feel has been severely underrated and a comparison of his work with that of James Mangold during two key sequences points this up. Take the scene with Glenn Ford and Felicia Farr first. When they stand on the porch and talk about their former lives there’s a very poignant sense of two lonely people and their sense of loss. As the camera follows Ford back into the saloon there’s a kind of innocent charm about his seduction of Farr, and then the camera zoom and music cue hit the mark perfectly when he asks the colour of her eyes. In contrast, Mangold just has Crowe sidle up behind Vinessa Shaw, grunt in her ear and off they go. The other sequence that highlights Daves’ superior handling of the material is during the lengthy wait in the hotel. While Ford stretches out on the bed he tries to tempt his captor into letting him walk with offers of a bribe. During this exchange the camera cuts back and forth between the faces of the two men, each time the focus zooms marginally closer on Van Heflin and ratchets up the tension. Mangold shoots the same scene mostly static and the result is that the tension doesn’t build and it simply falls flat. Another problem is the ending of the remake. One criticism of Delmer Daves’ work was that his endings were often a bit of a cop out after what had gone before. The climax of the ‘57 3:10 to Yuma was always its weakness but it feels deeply satisfying when compared to the absolute travesty that the remake offers as a conclusion. This is not to say that Mangold doesn’t do anything well. His handling of the action sequences is noteworthy, from the opening stage hold-up (complete with exploding horse) to the climactic gun battle/chase through the streets of Contention. The problem is that these have a comic book, Spaghetti western feel that sits a little uncomfortably with the dour tone of the rest of the picture.
I know Russell Crowe is a fine actor but when I compare his Ben Wade to that of Glenn Ford’s he comes off second best; there’s just not enough charm and too much of his natural oafishness showing through. I also prefer Van Heflin’s Dan Evans to that of Christian Bale but I don’t mean that as a criticism of the latter’s acting skill, rather I would put it down to the writing of the part. Ben Foster certainly outscores Richard Jaeckel as Wade’s henchman Charlie Prince; the role is greatly expanded in the remake and Foster really sinks his teeth into it. I also want to mention Peter Fonda, whose grizzled bounty hunter was one of the best things about the 2007 movie. How can you not admire a man who’s back in the saddle mere hours after being gut-shot and then operated on by a vet - what a guy!
So, I think I can safely say that my preference is for the 1957 3:10 to Yuma. However, people who come upon the remake with no knowledge of or exposure to the original may find it entertaining enough. Sure it’s chock full of implausibilities and boasts an outrageous ending but even I was willing to take these in my stride at first. Watching them consecutively as I did will only throw all those negatives into even sharper relief.