On most days, I feel that if I were the head of a movie studio, my first act would be to declare a moratorium on remakes. Great classic movies are what they are, and remaking them is a little like rewriting War and Peace. Lesser movies may present a challenge to young directors who think they can do better with the same material, but aren't there plenty of new plays and novels they can adapt, not to mention original screenplays? Along with the now-ubiquitous big-screen versions of TV shows, remakes all too often are an excuse for greedy producers to slap a pre-sold brand name on an undistinguished product to guarantee a profit. (The live-action Flintstones, anyone?)
Having said all that, I have to admit that 3:10 to Yuma, James Mangold's remake of Delmer Daves' 1957 original, is not only a pleasant but a thrilling surprise. Daves' version, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, was a lean, stripped-down variant of High Noon in which Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a rancher severely down on his luck, agrees for a fee to guard smooth-talking outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) on the way to the train that will take Wade to the territorial prison.
Soon all the other members of the posse accompanying Wade and Evans have either chickened out or been killed off by Wade's loyal gang; this leaves Evans alone with the Machiavellian Wade, who tries every head game he knows—from taunts to threats to promises of bribes—to make Evans let him go. Meanwhile, Wade's gang lies in wait to kill Evans and free their boss.
Over the years, the original 3:10 to Yuma has won a reputation as a minor Western classic. Without giving away major plot points, I will say that Mangold's version of 3:10 to Yuma is longer, bloodier, sadder and more ambitious than the original. But is it better? My critic's head tells me that I should prefer the cleaner, more streamlined morality tale that is Daves' original. But my movie fan's heart rules in such matters, and it can't help pointing out that the 117 minutes of Mangold's version go by faster than Daves' 92. Mangold's version may be messier, but it is also richer, more complex, and—despite a couple of caveats—more compelling.
How to compare the two? Mangold uses large chunks of dialogue and action from Halsted Welles' 1957 script, giving Welles credit as co-scenarist, but makes substantial changes in their placement and emphasis. New characters are created (most prominently Byron McElroy, the hard-bitten bounty hunter played by Peter Fonda) and others are changed considerably (Potter, the town drunk played by Henry Jones in the original, is transformed into the town veterinarian played by Alan Tudyk). Mangold adds themes to the story that Daves didn't have time for, such as the continuing war between settlers and Apaches and the building of the railroads. He adds details to the characters; for example, he gives Ben Wade a talent for sketching, underscoring his powers of observing and manipulating other people. And if Heflin's Evans was unfortunate, Bale's Evans is Job in a cowboy hat. Besides being beset by the drought that brought Heflin-Evans to the brink of ruin, Bale-Evans is being forced off his land by a greedy land baron eager to foreclose on Evans' mortgage and sell the property to the railroads. (One of Bale-Evans' many humiliations is that he is forced to ride in a posse with the thug who burned his barn.) Bale-Evans has a wooden leg, thanks to the Civil War, and his wife and sons hold him in unveiled contempt. (One oddity of Mangold's version is that it downplays the women characters in comparison with Daves'. As Alice, Evans' wife, Gretchen Mol has about half the lines of Leora Dana in the original, and makes about a quarter of the impact. Vinessa Shaw as saloon girl Emmy shows a lot more skin than the original's Felicia Farr, but isn't nearly as alluring.) In Daves' version, a worried Alice comes after her husband; in Mangold's, it is Will (Logan Lerman), Evans' hot-blooded elder son, who comes after his father. This plot alteration alone serves to demonstrate the basic difference between the two movies.
And so the differences run, down to the photography. (Phedon Papamichael's dusty, gritty views of Monument Valley get the job done in Mangold's film, but the elegant black-and-white cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. in Daves' version is a work of art in itself.) But the main differences between the two movies are in the action sequences and the quality of the acting, and in those areas Mangold's version is clearly superior. Mangold simply knows how to build tension better than Daves did; this isn't just a matter of adding more action to the story, or the standards of the times allowing Mangold to show more blood than Daves, but a basic issue of editing and pacing. The finale of Daves' version is properly tense, but Mangold's last five minutes will have you sweating bullets.
Of course Mangold helped his cause by hiring Crowe and Bale, two of the finest living screen actors, to play Wade and Evans. Crowe was a shrewd choice to succeed Glenn Ford in the role of Wade; both actors have quiet centers that suggest unplumbed, oceanic depths, as well as a wily unpredictability that can ambush even the most seasoned moviegoer. But Crowe exceeds Ford in his sheer expressiveness; he can say more in the raising of an eyebrow than most actors can in three pages of dialogue. As for Bale, he beats the spurs off Heflin, though in fairness to the latter it may simply be the difference in how the role of Evans is written.
In the original 3:10 to Yuma, Evans is an ordinary, somewhat limited man, and the main question is whether his stubborn decency can withstand the onslaught of Wade's malevolent intellect. In Mangold's version, it's much more a battle of equals, giving full play to Bale's lively intelligence and depth of feeling. Evans may appear a loser at the movie's beginning, but it becomes progressively clear that he is anything but. The sidelong grin Evans gives Wade in the Mangold version, as Wade tries to tempt him with offers of riches, shows us that Evans has seen every angle the world has to offer; it's just that none of them ever played out for him. Wade and Evans come to the mutual recognition that they are brothers in hard luck, who simply drew different conclusions and made different choices from their bitter circumstances. To paraphrase Philip Seymour Hoffman's line in Capote, Evans left by the front door, while Wade went out the back. This in turn leads to a final act that some critics have found less believable than the original. I will only say that, because the film takes great care to present Wade as a character who obeys only his inner sense of honor and fair play, I had no trouble believing Mangold's ending.
As excellent as Crowe and Bale are, they are far from the whole show. As McElroy, Peter Fonda could teach even his father a thing or two about cinematic cussedness. Alan Tudyk gives us a poignant portrait of diffident courage as Doc Potter. Logan Lerman is memorable as Will, a boy impatient to become a man, who learns some lessons about manhood that no one should ever have to learn. The best supporting performance comes from Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, Wade's second-in-command, whose murderous devotion to his boss suggests an attachment that is stronger than mere friendship. With his deranged, pitiless gaze, Foster evokes memories of Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, and no higher praise is possible.
My guess is that Western purists will continue to prefer Daves' original. I admire the original, but it's the remake that gallops across my memory. I'm one of those old galoots who'd like to see Westerns make a comeback. The last one I can remember is Kevin Costner's Open Range, which appeared in 2003. With its magnificent photography by James Muro and moving performances by Costner, Robert Duvall and Annette Bening, Open Range was very good indeed, but 3:10 to Yuma is better. Between these two films and the upcoming The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, perhaps oat futures will once again be a good investment.