When Django, the title character and hero of director Sergio Corbucci’s seminal spaghetti western, first appears on screen, he’s slogging on foot through mud, dragging a coffin behind him. The image is evocative and challenging. In classic American films, western heroes had generally been dignified cowboy types saddled up on strong horses. They were lawmen or simple ranchers with a code of honor. They rode into town in a cloud of dust and plainspoken righteousness backed up by a sharp eye and a six-shooter, and they stood for the endurance of traditional values on a wild frontier.
Django thinks those guys were pussies.
The western isn’t dead, exactly, but recent efforts in the genre have been self-conscious, driven either by an urge toward revisionism or an effort to recapture the epic sweep of the work of masters like John Ford or, for another generation, Sergio Leone. 3:10 to Yuma is refreshing because it doesn’t seem to have a nostalgic agenda. It’s an unflashy potboiler featuring stagecoaches and six-shooters, a wagonload of stolen gold, and a full complement of desperate men on both sides of the law. James Mangold is best known these days for directing Joachim Phoenix in Walk the Line, but 3:10 to Yuma has more in common with his earlier film Cop Land, which cast Sylvester Stallone as one good cop standing up to a whole bunch of bad ones. Christian Bale stars as Dan Evans, a destitute rancher who agrees to escort notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a prison train in exchange for a desperately needed cash bounty. Hardly a shot-for-shot remake of the Glenn Ford original, the new movie spends more time on the journey and less at the destination. It’s gritty and exciting, although the last action scene is outlandishly staged and Mangold can’t quite sell the dynamic that develops between the two leads. You can see Crowe struggling throughout to summon the eccentricity that would make his character more credible, and while Bale has the easier job it’s his smoldering, unwavering focus, played against Crowe’s pointed taunts and wisecracks, that makes 3:10 a pleasure to watch. B
This review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.
Of the half-dozen westerns Jimmy Stewart made with ace genre director Anthony Mann in the 1950s, this is widely considered the best. Stewart plays a bounty hunter whose situation gets stickier than expected when he crosses paths with an old prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a shady lieutenant (Ralph Meeker) who’s been booted from the cavalry, and his crafty prey (Robert Ryan) tries setting the three men against one another. (Janet Leigh is the tomboy love interest.)
“Y’know, I’m not queer,” growls Heath Ledger. “Me neither,” murmurs Jake Gyllenhaal, only a little less convincingly.
When he makes the gravelly declaration, Ledger, playing ranch hand Ennis Del Mar, has just clambered out of the tent where he spent a cozy night after roughly shagging his cowboy companion Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal), with whom he’s sharing a sheep-ranching gig — the kind of job you only take for a guaranteed pay-out when prospects elsewhere seem dim. Gyllenhaal’s quiet complacency contrasts with Ledger’s stern declaration. Having satisfied what may be transitory needs, the two of them are operating at emotional cross-purposes — Ennis trying to assert the encounter as a drunken aberration, and Jack balancing that discomfort against his own desires. He seems happy to say whatever’s most likely to keep his new lover close to him the longest.
This first collaborative effort between director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart is a must for anyone who wants to understand the latter’s evolution from the droll figure of Harvey and It’s a Wonderful Life to a personage capable of the depths of racking psychological despair he evinced in Vertigo. Here, he plays a charismatic but grim and singleminded sharpshooter whose life is narrowly defined by his hunt for a sort of doppelganger — the smug, black-hatted criminal who killed his father. The title refers to a rare specimen of Winchester rifle, so snugly and exactly assembled that its very existence is a perfect accident that occurs only once in every thousand guns produced. This weapon is the prize in a bravura shooting contest that takes place less than 20 minutes into the film, and it becomes the focus of the story. The narrative doesn’t always follow Stewart, but Stewart is always following the gun, which he knows will eventually lead him to his arch-nemesis.