Friday, September 14, 2007

3:10 To Yuma

I agree with Steve Barnes in enough areas, and we like enough of the same movies, that I was very excited about 3:10 to Yuma. Saw it tonight, and it's a first-rate work. Steve's take is that it's the best western since The Outlaw Josie Wales. I just got back from it, and unlike Bourne Ultimatum, which I saw twice, once is going to be enough for this one.

It's a really good movie. Russell Crowe's likely to pick up an Oscar nomination, and so's Christian Bale. A supporting nod for Peter Fonda wouldn't surprise me a bit. Nor would one for Ben Foster, who's absolutely mesmerizing in the role of Crowe's sidekick and faithful dog.

OK, four performances, all first rate or better. (And the various supporting performances, though not as impressive, hit the right notes and never detract.) The skeleton of the story is that Bale's character, Dan Evans, has to take Crowe's character, the charismatic murderer Ben Wade, to the city of Contention, where Wade will be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma -- to stand trial and be hung.

The first 90% of the movie is among the best Westerns ever made, and over the years I've seen most of the great ones, so I speak with some familiarity on the subject matter. Bale gives one of the finest and most nuanced performances I've ever seen in a Western, and Crowe, gifted with the gaudier role, underplays relentlessly (probably a necessity, playing against Bale's stoicism) ... and still reminds you in every frame why he's a damned movie star.

Ben Wade is a relentlessly convincing bad man; there's nothing good in the guy .... until the movie's climax, when he does something decent and so thoroughly out of character it fucking near ruined that movie for me.

If you haven't seen it yet, and this is your sort of material, it's absolutely worth seeing once. And maybe the payoff will work for you. It didn't for me. A resolution that depends on a hidden core of decency in Ben Wade -- after the movie's gone to substantial and convincing length to show us the man's rotten core -- was a miscalculation. Wade needed some hint of character we're never given, or the movie needed a different ending.


Consistently the movies I like, Steve Barnes likes, and I admire that about him. But in the post I linked above, he spoke poorly of Unforgiven....

The greatest Westerns are Shane, Unforgiven, and Lonesome Dove. It'd take an essay on my part to adequately say why I think this, and why other movies such as Red River or The Searchers don't make the cut -- and it's all just opinion, end of day, mine or Barnes's --

Barnes: Yes, I can well understand someone feeling that “Unforgiven” is better, and more recent. But there’s a rather unfortunate bit of Sacrificial Negro business that keeps me from really embracing that one…)

Obviously I can't come at a movie from Steve's perspective, and I don't know that you can be wrong in how you respond to a given piece of art -- it touches you how it touches you. But I just want to take a moment to speak well of this particular piece of art. If intent counts a lick, this is a movie that end to end has its heart in the right place. It's a violent movie that shows the costs of violence. Possibly more to the point, the scene Steve refers to -- Morgan Freeman's character is whipped to death in a scene that has "lynching" written all over it -- was in the original script, which says not one word about the character's skin color ...

Now you're Clint Eastwood, and you want to hire Morgan Freeman to play that character. What are your options?

1. Change the script so Freeman doesn't die.
2. Don't hire him.
3. Hire him and shoot it as is ... which they did.

I respect Barnes a huge amount, and Unforgiven is easily one of the five finest movies I've ever seen. I wish he'd give it another look. I'd be curious to know how he'd have handled it, had he been directing Unforgiven ...


Steve Perry said...

I like your western choices. Shane. Lonesome Dove. Unforgiven, all great movies -- and Lonesome Dove the novel is outstanding

Don't forget Rustler's Rhapsody.

And maybe ... High Noon?

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Well, it's no Rustler's Rhapsody. (I'm doing a post about RR soon -- we watched it recently, me and my sons.)

High Noon would make the cut of my top Westerns -- if I were forced to rank at gunpoint, it'd go:

Lonesome Dove
... bit of a drop
Wild Bunch
High Noon
High Plains Drifter
... bit of a drop
Red River
The Searchers
The Professionals

... two movies I like a lot don't really strike me as westerns per se -- Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are almost peripherally westerns, if you know what I mean.

On any given day I might order these films differently... but not a lot differently.

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, but I loved Butch and Sundance. One of my all time favorite movies.

And bits and pieces of it were kinda-sort true, here and there ...

Most cowboy movies don't portray the real west any more than kung fu movies portray the real China. There were guys with guns, good and bad, but the slap-leather-Gunsmoke duel on main street seldom, if ever, happened.

What usually happened is one guy pulled his piece and shot the other guy before he knew what was going down. Not infrequently in the back.

In the black powder days, if two guys fired off guns in the saloon -- most of which had real doors to keep the dust out -- after two or three shots, they'd be shooting blind. It would look like a WWII destroyer laying smoke inside any building smaller than a jet hangar.

John Henry "Doc" Holliday once unloaded his revolver across a card table at a guy and missed five times from five feet away.

Supposedly why Wyatt Earp gave him a shotgun at the O.K. Corral shootout, which actually was next to the photography studio.

Had to love Val Kilmer's consumptive Doc Holliday, "Ah'm yore huckleberry."

"Yore a daisy if you do ..."

That scene with Holliday and Johnny Ringo quoting Latin at each other? Priceless.

Wild Bill Hickok, working at a bar in Hays, Kansas, in 1869 when he was a marshal, was collecting beer glasses from the empty lot where the cowboys dropped them when they went to pee. Came back in, said, "Listen boys, you need to stop leaving these glass in the lot, we're running out of them."

One of the local bad men, Sam Strawhim, said, in effect, "I will drop them there if I damn well please."

Whereupon Will Bill didn't say "Boo," but drew his revolver and shot Sam deader'n black plastic.

Got off, too. Self-defense.

Lonesome Dove nails the mind-set, and the way Ranger/Cowboys did things. I used to give that book to women and say, "This is how men before the sixties thought, read it."

Unforgiven takes away the glamor.

(Deadwood, on HBO, takes the art of spoken Anglo-saxon, dust, and tarnish to a new plateau, and there ain't nothing shiny in the whole town. If you liked Unforgiven, you might enjoy this series.)

The rest of them, all a hoot to watch, are Hollywood westerns.
Good stories, but about as historically accurate as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Doesn't make them any less entertaining, but when you did into how things really were, none of them are close.

Me, I like the Eastern Western, The Magnificent Seven (stolen lock, stove, and smoke from Kurasawa's Seven Samurai).

James Colburn with that knife ...

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Steve Barnes's resonse ...


Dan --

Here's the thing. Unforgiven is a GREAT western. But I cannot enjoy it as you do, or as I would were I white, or Morgan Freeman white, or if Morgan Freeman had ever had the freedom to play a sexual human being in a movie (he's had ONE screen kiss in his entire career!) or if I hadn't seen so many other black men die protecting white men (it was that, not the slave imagery that offended me) or if you could name a single movie ... one single film ... that had only one white character, who died protecting a black man. If I was more enlightened, I might be able to rise above that, but I can't. Did you notice that in "Lonesome Dove" there is only one black characrter ... Danny Glover ... who dies. Until you can name me the movie that has only one white character, who dies, you're not even close to being clear on what that is like. And because you will never live in a world in which such imagery is common, there is no way to really communicate it to you. If I were Clint Eastwood, and aware of the problem, I would have

1) Cast Morgan Freeman in another role, where he survives. Or...

2) Cast him in another movie, where he survives. Which Eastwood did, in "Million Dollar Baby." I have no problem with Clint Eastwood, even though in "Flags of Our Fathers" he seemed to ignore that there were black soldiers on Iwo Jima. As all other filmmakers have done.

I don't blame Eastwood for being a part of his culture. I admire him highly -- but would admire him even more if he were more enlightened on this particular issue. I wish that I didn't react this way -- I would be able to enjoy more movies more. Better still, I wish the problem didn't exist, or that I didn't believe that it relates to America and the world as a whole.

But you're right -- Unforgiven is magnificent. And only deeply flawed in the sense that it reflects the culture we live in, and the psychology of human beings as a whole. Eastwood is a genuine artist.


Dan here again -- I exchanged a couple more emails with Barnes after this, and I was thinking "Jeez, wouldn't you really rather black guys were working, than otherwise?" ... and he said:

Hey, you're a feminist, right? What would you rather have in a movie: no women, or a single woman who is presented in an offensive manner?

... which is nicely phrased. He would prefer Freeman hadn't worked on that movie, and I understand.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Steve Perry -- yeah, the Western is American kabuki, with its rituals and tropes. Nothing wrong with that. Lonesome Dove comes closest to what I think the West really was like.

Except for some parts of RR ...

"The way a person dresses is nobody's business but his or her own."

... you know that shit was going on all the time.


I worked on my grandfather's ranch in Arizona, growing up. I'm about as much a cowboy as you can get and still be a boy from Los Angeles. To this day I wear cowboy boots instead of dress shoes -- it was useful the time the rattler showed up in the back yard, too.

Anonymous said...

Winchester 73. No social commentary, just good guys versus bad guys, Jimmy Stewart against Dutch Henry Brown. Just a solid western.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Steve, by the way --
Kilmer was the best part of that movie: "Evidently Mr. Ringos an educated man ... now I really hate him."

-- but the best bit was "You gonna do something, or just stand there and bleed?"

One of the single best lines in all of movies.

Steve Perry said...

I'm interested in what your boys thought of RR. I think it's kind of like the first Superman move with Chris Reeves. I took my kids to see it, and they enjoyed it, but I was laughing my ass off in spots and they didn't understand why.

The phone booth in a tight shot that turned to be only an open kiosk ...

With RR, what made it so funny were all those cowboy movie tropes I grew up watching. That trailer full of clothes had me almost peeing myself, but if you hadn't seen all those Roy Rogers/Gene Autry singing cowboy movies/TV series, it wouldn't have made any sense.

Ditto shooting the guns out of their hands.

Yeah, most of Tombstone was hogwash, but I did love Kilmer. Possibly his best role ever.

My favorite Wyatt Earp movie was Sunset, with Jim Garner as Earp and Bruce Willis as Tom Mix.

I'd watch Garner read the phone book. Ben a fan since Maverick.

Not a western, but did you ever see Twilight, with Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, and James Garner? Best old guys detective movie ever ...

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Amy and I saw Twilight on opening night. We're, uhm, not youthful any more, but we were by at least a decade the youngest couple in that crowd....

Val Kilmer's had 2 roles that justify his existence on this planet -- as Trent (er, Chris Knight) in Real Genius, and as Doc Holliday in Tombstone.

Unfortunately, the guy can really act. It's substantially interfered with his movie star career.

I'll go into this at more length on the RR post ... but what I love most wholeheartedly about that movie isn't the parts that are funny, it's the parts that play perfectly straight. I don't know if Tom Berenger would be flattered to hear me say that this was the role he was born to play ... but it is.

... my five year old was downright appalled when Rex backed down to Bob. They could tell some parts were supposed to be funny, and they didn't get it -- but they got all the straight stuff, and it worked for them, sans irony. (My nine year old, when Bob shows up: "This is a trick, isn't it? Right? It's a trick?")

It mostly works for me that way. I've watched that movie 6 or 7 times over the years, and I still get a happy little chill when the kid runs into the main street of town and yells, "He coming! He's coming! ... And he's STANDING IN THE SADDLE!"