Remakes have been around nearly as long as Hollywood itself, and not always for the reasons or with the results you’d think. Spectrum Culture’s new feature Re-Make/Re-Model will examine the long history of cinematic remakes, the good movies turned great, the bad ideas turned worse and the weird ones turned boring.
The American Western of the 1950s was a vehicle for a new social consciousness, films full of critique of the status quo and non-conformist characters exhibiting a surprising psychological complexity. These films often delved into politics, frequently exploring burgeoning Cold War issues, siding with or against HUAC, exploring race relations and illuminating class struggles.
Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957) was no exception. The story of struggling rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his transport of notorious criminal Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to the 3:10 train bound for the federal prison in Yuma is in many ways a classic story of growth, of finding strength one didn’t know one had. But as we see when Ben’s gang robs the Butterfield stage, Wade is a man who values the group over the individual, so much so that he murders one of his own men because the gang member’s weakness threatened the group’s stability.
Ben Wade can be seen as the personification of Communism, at least as the popular U.S. culture saw it smack in the middle of the Khrushchev era. He is almost a caricature of a Communist leader, assuring his genuine concern for individuals, though it is just seductive lies, all propaganda with no substance. His gang operates by hiding in plain sight; like Cold War spies and psycho killers, these evil men look just like everyone else.
Wade is hypocritically happy to preach to the superiority of the group while enjoying the individual perks of leadership. When Dan Evans and his two young boys witness the gang’s robbery and murders, Dan does nothing, even giving up his own horses to the gang without much complaint. Later in town, however, after his wife has planted seeds of insecurity and made him feel weak, he helps capture Ben Wade, who had stayed behind to dally with the beautiful barmaid Emmy. Despite all the talk of the group’s needs outweighing the individual’s, there is no question that the gang will return to rescue Ben, proving that even in a metaphorical Marxist commune, it’s good to be the king.
Butterfield (Robert Emhardt), owner of the robbed stage, offers a large reward for the transport of Wade to the federal prison in Yuma. That reward would save Dan, whose dusty farm and sickly herds threaten to destroy his family. He volunteers, strictly for the money, and is joined by the sobered-up town drunk Alex (Henry Jones). As the danger from Ben’s gang members increases on their way to the 3:10 train, the town marshall and the posse slowly drop off. They are the ineffective law, so weak that they allow tyrants like Ben to rule the land. Butterfield, the rich corporate man, stays by Dan longer than the law, but he too abandons the job as his life is threatened. It becomes clear that the only thing that stands a chance of defeating Ben Wade and his gang is the triumph of the individual through the sacrifices made by Dan and Alex, the last two left to take Wade to the train.
The gorgeous black and white Western cinematography in the film is reminiscent of John Ford’s earlier films, mainly due to the use of similar locations, though Ford always strove for a softer and more sentimental look. Cinematographer Charles Lawton’s 3:10 to Yuma creates a harsh world with steep angles and craggy trees and dust, caddy-corner geometric shapes next to wide open spaces and long, deep shots. It creates the visual tension and interest the film needs, especially in its second half where there’s nothing left for anyone to do but to talk and to wait.
Director Delmer Daves is probably best known today for late 1950s and early 1960s melodramas that often slid into full-on camp, though it was his late-‘40s noirs that put him on the Hollywood map. Themes of social responsibility and more overt adult fare fit well into late noir, and he retained those themes when he transitioned to Westerns. Daves could be clumsy at times with the use of sexual metaphor, however, and the famous bridal suite scene of 3:10 to Yuma is sometimes seen as yet another example of his too-obvious symbolism, a campy attempt at injecting homoeroticism where none was necessarily needed.
But there is more to the bridal suite than that. It’s the setting for Ben’s and Dan’s psychological showdown, the culmination of Ben’s mind games and Dan’s attempt to muster all his courage. Dan on the surface seems to be in a typical 1950s subservient female role: Sitting next to the window in his pretty wicker chair, with Ben promising to take care of him if he would only give him one more chance.
The role of women in Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma, however, is complex. The traditionally submissive female roles in 1950s American cinema meant women were often cast as slightly nagging background characters who irritated men into doing what they want, a common trope that came to its brutal but necessary conclusion in Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). In 3:10 to Yuma, Daves subtly subverts that trope. Alice mourns the fact that her boys saw their father being weak, leading Dan to begrudgingly prove his strength. As he struggles to earn the reward, he gradually discovers an empathy for others, a caring for the common good rather than a single-minded selfishness. His cohort Alex undergoes a similar transformation, and even Ben’s brief romance with the barmaid Emmy gives him a glimpse of humanity, of a life as part of society instead of outside it.
That’s why, when Dan is sitting in the bridal suite as a metaphorical woman, it’s not because he is weak but rather on the verge of becoming the strong, moral man he is capable of, and to do that he must learn what the woman in his life already knows. It’s a masterful moment, one that, sadly, doesn’t occur in the 2007 remake. While the bridal suite still exists, it’s incidental, a brief nod to the original and a chance to flesh out a saucy joke that couldn’t be told 50 years prior. The female characters in the remake are superfluous, props existing only to spout a few required lines of dialogue to the main male characters.
That, in a nutshell, illustrates the biggest flaw in the 2007 remake. It is clearly an homage to the Western, almost entirely comprised of recycled and repurposed bits of several classics of the genre. There is an unfortunate reliance on some of the worst aspects of past Westerns, though. Female characters without substance, token non-white non-speaking roles, baddies made to appear even more evil by implying they are gay. After an almost rote sympathetic mention of Apache forced from their lands, they become no more than barely-seen evil Injuns out to scalp them some white folks. Westerns were already questioning this stereotype in 1950s films such as Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow, and in that context, it feels almost hostile to reference the stereotype in a remake of a Daves film. Though there are occasional glimmers of a point to be made with all this in the 2007 version, it mostly plays like a yearning for the bad parts of the good old days.
In the remake, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a wounded war veteran, a man screwed by the U.S. government he once served. Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is much more stylishly psychopathic than in Glenn Ford’s turn, less charming and a bit more chaotic. Wade’s seductive personality is saved in this version for Dan’s teenaged son, disappointed in his weak father and easily swayed by the adventure that evil promises.
Beyond these surface changes, there is little variation from the original film. The assumed knowledge of the first film allows this remake to be lazy and essentially skip parts they don’t want to take the time to explain. And yet, as a collage of callbacks to older Westerns, it is somehow both entertaining and delightful. It uses the modern age to its advantage, indulging in a higher body count, increased focus on sociopathic behavior and as many explosions as they could possibly justify. While the cinematography is mostly uninspired, there are some location shots invoking the lovely Technicolor cinematography of Robert Surtees. The homage doesn’t stop there, with references to Peckinpah, Eastwood, Ford and more; Peter Fonda’s mere presence is meant to invoke his father Henry’s iconic role in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
The flaws in the film mostly melt away in the last act. That is where the real payoff to this remake is, where the haphazard collage of film references become fully-formed homage within a well-crafted action sequence. As the supporting cast starts to disappear or die off, 3:10 to Yuma truly finds its voice by focusing on two fine actors at the top of their craft. Christian Bale’s world weary, haggard rancher is a determined man but emotionally subdued, his meaningful moments limited to a few well placed lines of dialogue. It is a sublime performance, meshing terrifically with Russell Crowe’s intensity. Crowe knows the value of a good old-fashioned villain, a remarkable character whose mere strength of will can frighten more than any crimes he may commit.
3:10 to Yuma in any incarnation is the story of desperation and savagery in American society. These are both character-driven films, a celebration of the individual, yet prone to accidentally becoming satire when the focus is switched to setpieces or heavy action. Yet underneath the metaphor and homage is a finely-crafted story, brought to life in both versions by two unassailable actors at the top of their game.