Shot Down in a Blaze of Ignominy

“Sometimes a man has to be big enough to see how small he is,” someone advises Dan Evans in James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, based on Delmer Devlin’s 1957 adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story.

Evans (Christian Bale) is exactly big enough for that, and pretty much nothing else. If he didn’t already know how small he is, larger-than-life outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is more than man enough to drive the point home. When Evans’ worried wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) pleads with her husband not to take on the dangerous job of escorting the captured Wade to Contention City to put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma to face justice, she protests that no one will think less of him for changing his mind. His reply: “No one can think less of me.”

In the 1957 film, Wade was a charismatic rogue with more than a touch of tarnished honor. Evans was a struggling rancher seeking his own ebbing sense of self-worth, along with a much-needed $200 reward, by bringing the outlaw to justice. In the end, the rancher may or may not have been up to the overwhelming task, but he wins his wife’s respect, his own self-respect and the respect of the outlaw — all of which add up to a crucial development.

James Mangold’s remake follows closely in the first film’s footsteps, except for all the business about honor, recovered self-worth and justice. There is just a broken man and a capricious one. The former harbors dreams of being a man again in the eyes of his wife and son but has no hope of achieving it. The latter is larger than life, an implacable force of nature able to kill men and seduce women at will. He never has any reason to honor or respect the other man, but on a whim he could conceivably take pity on him and go along with him.

In this retelling, Evans is thoroughly emasculated. Deprived of every shred of dignity and accomplishment, he even repulses his teenage son William (Logan Lerman), who despises his father’s weakness and inadequacy. Redemption eludes poor, pathetic Evans pretty much right to the end.

In the original, an ambiguous sense of obligation drove Evans to stick to his guns even when abandoned by every ally and facing impossible odds. Was he proud, stubborn, stupid or all three? Like Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane in the strikingly similar High Noon, he never let us know for sure what drove him. In Mangold’s remake, this nuance has been either overlooked or undermined. 

Also in the original, Evans is ultimately offered the $200 reward whether or not he goes through with braving the guns of Wade’s waiting gang to get their boss onto the 3:10 train. The deciding factor isn’t money. It’s Evans’ own sense of duty and self-respect.

In the new version, when Evans is offered the $200 reward even if he backs down, he counters with a demand of $1,000 for his family if he continues — the same sum Wade offered him as a payoff to let him go — as well as additional guarantees regarding his family’s well-being. This gives him a purely practical motivation: Even if he gets killed, he’ll be a better provider in death than he ever was in life.

If there is any moral victory, it’s only that Evans would rather die and have the stage line’s $1,000 go to his family than take the payoff for letting Wade go. Strangely, the $1,000 payoff Evans refuses is only a tenth of the final payoff offer in the original. The remake ramps up everything else; why dial down the money Evans refuses? Is it because the filmmakers don’t think their hero would have the moral fiber to walk away from $10,000, as his counterpart did in 1957? Or is it only that they don’t think Wade would offer that much for a bloodless resolution to the situation when he can solve it for free by letting his gang members kill Evans?

If the latter, once again, they’re probably right.

Wade in the original was a civilized, courteous sort of outlaw who wanted to rob stagecoaches without anybody getting hurt. In the remake, Wade’s gang is far more savage and lawless.

They routinely murder helpless prisoners, including men who have surrendered and laid down weapons or cooperated with their captors.

Just as the filmmakers systematically weaken and shortchange Evans, at every turn they enhance and glorify Wade’s manly prowess. Even as a prisoner, Wade effortlessly kills two of his escorts on the way to Contention, one for mocking him and the other for insulting his mother.

The 1957 film uncomfortably implied that, by some primal measures, Wade was more of a man than Evans — yet the gap between them was narrow enough that Evans could still contend with Wade, at least as an underdog. Here, there’s never any question of a contest.

The earlier film believed that a man was a man whether he was an outlaw or a law-abiding citizen. The remake sees men as either wolves or sheep — those who take what they want if they choose, and those who are the helpless victims of their caprice and whims.

As if sealing their film’s alienation from traditional values, the filmmakers add an exhausted element of twisted religious themes. Wade now quotes from the Bible, mocks the moral blind spots and hypocrisies of his law-abiding captors and carries a revolver nicknamed “the Hand of God” with a crucifix on the handle. There’s also a hint of implicit homoeroticism, by now a Hollywood convention, in the devotion to Wade by his psychotic sidekick Charlie Prince (Ben Foster).

It’s hard to believe that Mangold professes a lifelong love of 3:10 to Yuma. Of course, the filmmakers have a right to depart from their source material as they see fit; that the remake essentially ambushes the first film may be an outrage to fans, but it isn’t strictly what makes the new 3:10 to Yuma an odious film.

Still, the warping of the original film’s moral vision and the bizarre prospect of filmmakers seeking to honor a classic while profaning what it stood for makes a more intriguing topic than the nihilism and anarchy of another post-everything — including post-Western-civilization -— Western.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor and

chief critic of