The Beauty of Warshow’s America: 3:10 to Yuma

January 18, 2008

I was bound to like this movie. A bonafide gunslinger whose plot involves making it to the station on time for the eponymous Yuma-bound local, starring two of the best actors in Hollywood, featuring excellent cinematography and mis en scene, AND based on an Elmore Leonard short story? This was a movie made for Yesterday’s Salad. But no matter how much I expected to like it, I wasn’t expecting it to be this good, nor this interesting. 3:10 to Yuma played no small part in this year’s Western revival, which I hope sticks around for a while. Indeed, with movies as good as this year’s crop, it’s hard to understand why the genre stopped being relevant in the first place.

There’s nothing new in saying that the Western is an integral part of American mythology, if not the dominant myth. But there was a time when this was unacknowledged, and Robert Warshow, one of America’s great lost intellectuals, deserves much of the credit for its acceptance. Warshow, on the way to becoming one of America’s most important film-critics, died of a heart attack at 37. Thankfully, he was relatively prolific and we have the wonderful collection The Immediate Experience. In his essay, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner,” Warshow asks what the westerner fights for:

“The Westerner himself, when an explanation is asked of him…is likely to say that he does what he “has to do.” If justice and order did not continually demand his protection, he would be without a calling…What he defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image–in fact his honor. This is what makes him invulnerable…he fights not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is…and the movies which over and over again tell his story are probably the last art form in which the concept of honor retains its strength.”

I’ve been trying to decide whether or not 3:10 to Yuma fits Warshow’s paradigm. What do people fight for in this movie? Russel Crowe’s Ben Wade fights for money above everything else, and then psychological domination second. He is a master manipulator, who revels in driving others under his sphere of influence; he is not Warshow’s ideal “Westerner,” though most of his goldlust is directed at the equally immoral railroad, so he isn’t all bad. He may be fighting for his image, but he is not the Hero. Most of the other characters fight for money, even the reluctant Christian Bale. Warshow tells us that money in Westerns is not so much money as it is a quantification of morality. On that front, Bale is the only one who can be said to be moral. He is fighting not for money, but everything that was taken from him.

This includes his manhood. The first half of the film is in many ways an investigation of the concept of manhood. Russel Crowe tells Christian Bale that he’s not a man because he doesn’t reach out and take what he wants. And, sure enough, Bale is impotent: he lost a leg in the war (Warshow tells us that all Westerns seem to take place in some sort of imagined “1870”), and though he carries a gun, he doesn’t fire it during the first half of the film. Instead others take everything he has, including Wade who tries to take his wife (the lovely Gretchen Mol). Bale’s character arc is the story of recovering his manhood, while Crowe’s, not surprisingly, is redemption, the rediscovery of his moral code. This was bound to happen. Wade’s manipulations are so attractive that we want him to succeed. Indeed, it’s not surprising that Wade’s top lieutenant, ably played by Ben Foster, appears to be in love with him.

One of the reason’s Bale has to fight for his manhood is that he is not a real Westerner. Drafted into the Union Army, Bale was wounded in the only combat he saw. Years later he’s forced to move out West because his asthmatic child needs the dry desert air. One of the Western’s themes is the slow settlement of the West and Bale is a settler. He may be being pushed out by the railroads, but he is no less a newcomer than they are. This fact explains his son’s animosity toward him. The best Westerns recognize that these people were already legends in their own time (cf. the writer in Unforgiven), and 3:10 is no different. Growing up out west, the son has idolized the lionized Ben Wade, or those like him. He cannot relate to his father’s Eastern beliefs. The movie’s second half is the fantasy of his father becoming the Western hero, and the family holding off the railroad. No-one would want to watch the reality.

For those concerned that the Western is too slow a genre, rest assured that 3:10 is not. It has the pace of a modern action movie (if not The Bourne Supremacy, maybe The Bourne Identity), and a raid on a bank wagon that would make Sergio Leone blush. Not to mention Wade’s final shootout. Bale and Crowe are fantastic, and Gretchen Mol is lovely. Everything is very well-done.

The salon.com review posited that part of the reason it’s so difficult to make Westerns nowadays is that we’ve lost much of the language of the western:

Still, it’s hard to make westerns these days: Not everyone gets the point. A few of the supporting actors don’t know what to do with the slightly stiff, saddle-leather dialogue — they don’t know how to break it in, make it feel lived-in and alive.

I sincerely hope that the genre sticks around–at least long enough for someone to try and film Robert Coover’s Ghost Town–and that our actors and directors learn its language. 3:10 is a great starting point.

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