10 Years Later: How 3:10 to Yuma Updated An Elmore Leonard Classic

Earlier this year, critics and fanboys the world over hailed James Mangold’s Logan as one of the great comic book films. A dark, violent look at a hero’s last days in a world that has forgotten him, Logan does for superhero movies what Unforgiven did for Westerns — it may be the dawn of a new age or it may be an anomaly, but it seems to make the case that superhero movies are, in a sense, over. When Logan was released, some were discovering Mangold for the first time. Others were quick to point out that he’s been delivering some of the strongest work in the studio system for twenty-plus years. (Hell, he was a writer on the animated 1988 Disney film Oliver and Company, which features Billy Joel as a talking dog with sunglasses. It’s rad.)

Ten years ago, Mangold took much of the influence he would bring to Logan and applied it to a new adaptation of the Elmore Leonard short story “Three-Ten To Yuma.” The story had been adapted once before, in 1957, in a good film that features an acting-against-type Glenn Ford portraying the villainous Ben Wade. Mangold took a different approach to the material and, in the process, created one of the most enduring and underrated westerns of the 21st century.

What’s interesting watching the 1957 and 2007 3:10 to Yumas back-to-back is how similarly they start. The first hour of Mangold’s film features several scenes that directly recreate the original, which in turn are often lifted straight from Leonard’s story. (Halsted Welles, who wrote the 1957 version and died in 1990, is co-credited for the 2007 screenplay.) Elmore Leonard was a distinctive writer whose work has been adapted often, in films like Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight, and on television in the FX series Justified. His style is terse and quick and often very funny, and the original 3:10, directed by Delmer Daves, captures Leonard’s voice more effectively.

But Mangold and screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas dig deeper into the story. After that first hour of essentially being a brilliantly shot, well-acted recreation of the 1957 film, Mangold’s blazes its own trail to become something else entirely. The story — a poor rancher has to escort an outlaw to a train bound for Yuma, where the outlaw will go to prison — is essentially the same. Everything else, though, from the character dynamics to the action to even the film’s ending, has been changed. And almost every change is for the better. 

Christian Bale is our hero, the rancher; Russell Crowe is our villain, the outlaw. Both deliver some of the best work of their careers, but particularly Crowe, who manages to ooze charm despite playing a thoroughly despicable character. He’s so good it makes you kind of angry that Crowe isn’t acting in an age when more Westerns are being produced (he is similarly great in Sam Raimi’s 1995 film The Quick and the Dead). In a way, his performance is similar to the original as an actor playing against type. The normally stoic, stiff Russell Crowe gets to chew the scenery a bit here, flirt with women, crack some jokes, etc.

One of Mangold’s most inspired choices was to make the movie more of an ensemble picture. The relationship between Bale and Crowe does drive the film, but the group traveling with them — which consists of Dallas Roberts, Kevin Durand, Alan Tudyk, Peter Fonda, and later Logan Lerman (playing Bale’s son) — provide some of the film’s best moments and help to raise the stakes as members of the party are killed. In the meantime, Ben Foster is hanging out on the edges of the film as Crowe’s number two, and he just runs away with the damn thing, showing early signs that he is one of the best actors of his generation.

Perhaps by necessity, Mangold’s Yuma is much more action-oriented than its predecessor, and the action is nothing short of spectacular. It’s well-executed, intense, and unafraid to get a little ridiculous — at one point, a horse blows up. A horse! That’s bonkers! But the action doesn’t feel tacked on. Every scene serves the narrative, all building to a climax that vastly improves on the original film in just about every way.

Mangold’s decision to focus much of the film on Bale’s relationship with his son proves to be a wise one. (Spoilers this paragraph and next.) The son sees his dad as weak, and it gives Bale motivation to finish the job beyond just a financial need for it. The fact that the film ends with Bale’s sudden death — in the pursuit of what is shown to essentially be a pointless quest — is a gut punch, especially if you’re familiar with the original, in which hero and villain successfully board the train and ride into Yuma. The sentiment is the same: The villain Ben Wade notes that he’s broken out of Yuma prison before and can do so again, while the hero Dan Evans doesn’t care so long as he gets him on that train.

But there’s the biggest difference between Daves’ original and Mangold’s remake. One film ends the way you’d expect, with the hero successful and the charming, likable villain temporarily (but willingly) defeated. And the other ends with the hero successful, but at the cost of his own life. Crowe does board the train in the end, right after he kills Ben Foster and the rest of his gang for unjustly murdering someone whom he saw as a righteous man.

The original 3:10 to Yuma is a morally gray story that attempts to blur the line between hero and villain. Mangold took that concept and modernized it in a unique way, emphasizing Crowe’s villainy while exploiting his charming performance, and showcasing Bale’s decency by juxtaposing it against his failure to provide for his family. A decade before Mangold brought existentialist Western trappings to the superhero genre and brought a quiet end to an iconic character in the process, 3:10 to Yuma shows he had already perfected them.   

Michael Smith lives in the Western town of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. 

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