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July 13, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The other night, The Wife and I watched "3:10 to Yuma," a 1957 western directed by Delmar Daves, adapted by screenwriter Halsted Welles from an early Elmore Leonard novel, and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Have you ever caught the film? Both of us found it engrossing, exciting, even galvanizing.

Did you know that Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns? I recently got around to reading a volume of his early western fiction: this collection of stories. It's terrific. I love Elmore's current affable shaggy-dog mode. His recent novels strike me as the pulp-fiction equivalent of such sunny, late-in-life wonders as Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" and Altman's "Cookie's Fortune." But early Elmore is something else: tense, dynamic, juicy, full of suspense, jaw-droppingly well-devised, and shrewdly constructed. How could a movie made from this kind of material not be a humdinger?

An old videotape copy of "3:10 to Yuma" was gathering dust, so I pulled it off the shelf and slipped it into the VCR. Bingo: loved it. It's probably too scrappy, amoral, and B-movie-ish ever to be thought of as a classic. That's OK by me; many of the official western "classics" strike me as snoozes. "3:10" has carefully-honed, one-step-ahead-of-you dialog; tersely moody and sumptuous black and white visuals; subtle but burly pacing that ranges from the snappy to the quietly explosive; and tremendous non-Method performances from the main actors right on down through the cast-list.

It also has storytelling and plotting that strike me as pure genius. First you stare in fascination -- at least I did -- as the full-of-dramatic-potential pieces are moved into place. Then your heart starts to thump as Fate sets about tightening the screws.


The film stars Van Heflin as a struggling family man, and Glenn Ford as the suave leader of a pack of outlaws. Glenn dallies a few minutes too long with a saloon cutie and gets himself arrested. But he isn't much worried. His band of thieves swings more weight than any law agency in the territory does, and they're sure to spring him soon, if not now then certainly tomorrow. The good guys are terrified: What to do with their dangerous captive? They decide to ship him out of the territory, and pronto. Van -- who needs money to buy water to feed his cattle -- signs on to escort Glenn along his way. Van and some deputies will get Glenn on the 3:10 train to Yuma.

Ford -- who was best-known for trusty square roles -- is staggeringly good as a seductively calm bad guy. He's slow-moving, confident, and courtly in a likably insolent way -- a charming snake. Life in a lawless land suits him. When he wants sex, he knows how to warm a girl's heart. When he needs money, he knows where to steal it.

As Heflin prods him towards the train stop, Ford keeps up the digs, the teasing, and the taunting. But his tone is friendly and helpful, even admiring. "You're being paid 200 bucks to get me on the train out of here? Well, I'll give you 400 bucks if you let me go. Why not accept it? My posse is going to spring me anyway. You need the money. Your wife and kids need the money. Besides, if you resist, then people will be killed -- yet it'll all be for nothing, because I'll get away anyway. You don't want to leave your wife and kids without a husband and a father, do you? You're too good a man to want that. Oh, did I say 400 bucks? What would you think about 800 bucks?"

Heflin's no wimp; he's known as the best shot in the territory, and he's a macho wrangler in his own right. But Ford's opportunistic, conscience-free easygoingness brings out all of Heflin's conflicts. As he digs in his heels, the men who've volunteered to help him out bail, one by one. Heck, they've got families too. What does it matter to them if Glenn Ford is sprung? Besides, what's the point of fighting the inevitable?


Fate: It ain't easy, and it ain't pretty neither. But watching it work itself out can sure fascinate. Delmar Daves, whose work as a director I'm new to, puts this complex yet lowdown material over beautifully. The film is straightforward storytelling, yet it's also twisty and expressionistic in modest ways: full of oddball angles, gritty contrasts, and intricate tracking and crane shots, all of them lowkey and beautifully sprung. "3:10 to Yuma" is in the mode of the '50s psychological western -- it represents a kind of economical frontier expressionism.

The final minute or minute and a half of the film struck me as unnecessarily explicit and melodramatic. And I'm not sure I enjoyed the film quite as much as I did some of the other great psychological westerns of the period -- especially Anthony Mann's "The Tin Star," "Winchester '73," and "The Man from Laramie." But what's the point of getting hung up on perfection in art? And why should a film have to qualify as "the best" in order for us to find it immensely rewarding?

The classic western that "3:10 to Yuma" is inevitably compared to is "High Noon." The two films certainly have a lot in common, at least superficially, especially in their focus on moral dilemmas and on questions of justice. But -- FWIW, of course -- I enjoyed "3:10" much more than I did "High Noon." It's a far more gristly film: meaner, as well as less self-conscious. The emphasis in "3:10" isn't on moral heroism, or on doing the proper liberal thing. Instead, it's on character under stress. The film isn't designed to prompt earnest civics-class discussions. It's fascinating -- and gripping -- in terms of its action and its characters.

As a study of manliness under stress, I'm tempted to put "3:10" up there with "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," as well as some of the great war films. Key to "3:10" is the way Glenn Ford's relaxed amorality and smiling ease brings Van Heflin's conflicts to the surface. Heflin has his pride and his dignity, but he's hesitant and tormented too.

Van, we come to understand, feels unmanned -- not just because he's having a hard time looking after his family, but also because he's a family man in the first place. He's trying to wrest something rewarding from the vast, harsh land. He's doing the honorable thing. Only he's failing -- and he's failing not just his family but himself. In a harsh and hostile world that couldn't care less, why dig in your heels and take a stand for decency? Why not be carried along by the whims of nature instead? It's because Van Heflin hears the siren call of amorality so clearly that "3:10 to Yuma" is as dramatic and exciting as it is.

But but but ... All the reasons I've come up with above for enjoying the film -- halfway decent though I think they are as film-appreciation -- don't really account for the feeling I had watching the film, or the state of mind I spent its 90 minutes in. "3:10" is an excellent movie in many solid ways, but it wasn't the excellence or the solidity of the film that got to me.

Come to think of it, "3:10" got to me in the way many westerns do. (Being a good western, it got to me more than most.) Boy, how a western movie can hit me. Is this true for you as well? Typically, for a western's first 10 minutes I stand outside the film's action and universe. I watch, appalled by the stupid theme song, the "Yes, ma'am" corniness, the boyish fascination with gunplay and prowess, the doted-on rituals of manliness, the obsession with good and bad. What I'm watching doesn't strike me as grownup art. It strikes me as kiddie stuff.

Then -- usually with a blink -- I'm in the film. I'm lifted-out of myself and set down in an altered state of mind. I wake up in a dream. It's all so strange yet so familiar ... So artificial yet so easily-understood ... I know exactly what's at stake. I know precisely what the issues are. And I experience it all from the inside out. I'm completely content. All I want to do is watch how the familiar/unfamiliar elements play themselves out this time around.

There's something about the western-movie form that hooks me on a primitive level, in other words. Westerns often take me out of myself in the same way that fairy tales sometimes did when I was a kid. They could go on for hours and hours, and it would be fine by me. I'm happy to be lost inside them. It's too bad that they ever have to end.

Of course, Westerns are more than a bit like fairy tales. They're manly moral tales set in mythological landscapes. But -- as far as my reponses are concerned, anyway -- they're also much more than this. Watching a western, I don't care whether good wins out over bad. (I don't insist on down endings either.) I feel cheated only if the western world -- and the elements of the western genre -- don't get a chance to stretch their legs. Primal forces are set loose, and I feel deep satisfaction watching them play themselves out over western time and western space.

(I wonder if computer and video games hit their fans in a similar way. Friends who are fans tell me that the storyline of a beloved game isn't important. What they love is spending time in the computer game's created world.)

The western landscapes have a lot to do with it. So stark, so abstract, so battered yet so enduring -- they're like visual bulletins from the very nature of Being. Come to think of it, they remind me of the settings Noguchi devised for Martha Graham's dances. As far as movies go, I notice that I enter a similar heightened-dream state when I watch some of the films of a couple of one-of-a-kind Euro directors: the Rabelaisean Italian wildman Marco Ferreri -- try "La Grande Bouffe" -- and the melancholic and droll, erotic-comic surrealist Bertrand Blier. (If you want to give Blier's films a try, and please do, start with this one, or this one, or this one. I blogged about a recent Blier movie here.) In the films of both of these directors, archetypal male energies are given license to play themeselves out in mythic, dream landscapes. The mode may be Euro-art and not pulp-genre, but hey, such is life. Watching the films of Ferreri and Blier puts me in the same blissed-out state that watching many westerns does.

The critics and historians who make the grandest claims for westerns compare them to Greek tragedy. Who knows what such a contention will look like in 50 years. Silly, perhaps. But I can certainly see the reasons for the comparison. The grandeur; the mythic and formalized, Kabuki-like qualities; the primal drama of how-to-establish-morality-in-a-world-that-doesn't-care responsibilty ... In any case, it doesn't strike me as an absurd comparison. It seems like a helpful one.

Do you care that the Old West was nothing like how it appears in western movies? I'm glad to know the fact, but knowing it doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of the form. Films like "3:10 to Yuma" represent some of the last gasps of the traditional movie western. TV westerns were undermining the genre's place in the movie houses. And the "revisionist westerns" that followed in the '60s and '70s foregrounded a downbeat realism that was of a piece with those debunking decades. Might it be fair to say what the debunking approach finally achieved was to break the spell of the western form? It finished them off. Too bad. "I hate revisionist westerns," The Wife said as we were chatting after "3:10 to Yuma."

I find myself mulling over a couple of questions:

  • Musing #1: What's the equivalent of the western for women? If westerns are what I see them as -- dream landscapes in which archetypal male forces roam and come into conflict -- then what art form functions in a similar way for the female psyche? Romance fiction seems to me to be about little but wish-fulfillment, though maybe I'm being unfair. So: Maybe gothic? Maybe romantic comedy?

  • Musing #2: What's the contempo equivalent of the western?

While westerns per se were on arthritic last legs by the late '60s, another genre functioned as a direct replacement for a brief while: the vigilante movie. "Dirty Harry," and the "Walking Tall," "Billy Jack," and "Death Wish" movies all dramatized the struggle for justice and dignity in a hostile and amoral universe. They used the crumbling modern landscapes of that era -- the burnt-out downtowns, the garbage, the violence, the scared and needy citizenry -- as an equivalent of the harsh landscape of the old west. And they sometimes achieved a fairy-tale, dreamlike tone of their own.

These days, the sci-fi film seems to be playing something like the role the Western once did. It's fun to think about the similarities: the emphasis on the vastness of the frontier; the love of adventure; the question of moral development. (And, always, always, the male point of view.) It seems safe to say that the CGI cyber-database has become the new pop-mythological landscape.

But it's fun to think about the differences between westerns and sci-fi movies too. It seems to me that the most important difference may be in the nature of the central figure. The western heroes -- as well as the heroes of the '70s vigilante movies -- were undeniably men. It was taken for granted that most western heroes would have weight and dignity. Their dramas were the baseline dramas of men: What is it to assume responsibility? How to establish and maintain justice? Where to draw the line? What's the proper use of violence?

The heroes of sci-fi movies are often ... well, boys. And the dramas they're put through are the dramas of young males just setting out. Take a look, for instance, at "Star Wars" and "The Matrix." The boyishly goofy young heroes have to learn that they are indeed the chosen ones, and they have to learn how to go with the flow. They need to grow up, and they finally do so by ... learning to believe in themselves, and by accepting that they really are special. Good grief: These are the concerns of YA fiction. It all seems so very undergraduate, or when I'm in a generous mood, slackerish.

Interesting to see that many people are struck by the boyishness of the current pop-cult scene. Newsweek's David Ansen, for instance, recently wrote a good piece asking which of today's stars will become part of movie history. One of Ansen's central points is that the male stars of yesteryear -- Bogart, Gabin, Cary Grant -- were men, while today's male stars ... Well, here's Ansen:

There's a fundamental difference between the big American male stars of Gen X and their predecessors. The icons of the past were men. Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty were young and beautiful at the start of their careers, but they were never "boys." Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Will Smith and Cruise, not to mention Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, are defined by their boy-ishness. They began their careers as kids and, even as they move into their 30s and 40s, have never fully lost their dew.

Ansen -- to my mind persuasively -- attributes responsiblity for this change to the Boomers. In his view, the Boomers refused to grow up, and have since raised generations of young men with no concept at all of what it is to be a man. I often find myself wondering these days if adulthood might not be the current taboo and sin. I marvel that adulthood is no longer the great adventure. Instead, it seems to have become equated with defeat and failure.

The enthusiasm that watching "3:10 to Yuma" set off in me has carried me into a western phase. (I do hope that it's a manly western phase.) I'm enjoying more early Elmore, and I'm spending DVD-watching time with the 1989 TV series "Lonesome Dove." I'm curious about Larry McMurtry, whose fiction I've never read and whose novel the series is based on. I'm fascinated that so many people have loved "Lonesome Dove": What has it meant to them? I'm also drawn, on principle anyway, to the miniseries format. A miniseries is long, but it's it isn't endless. It's finite -- and how cool is that? And "Lonesome Dove" features an amazing cast that includes Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, Diane Lane, and many other super-talents. Unfortunately, after a couple of episodes I remain unhooked. But perhaps the episodes, the actions, the pacing, and the acting are accumulating a surprising cumulative force. We'll see.

My movie reference books tell me that Delmar Daves and Glenn Ford made a couple of other westerns together in the late 1950s. I've put both at the top of my Netflix rental list.

Are there forms and genres that automatically -- well, almost automatically -- throw you into altered and heightened waking-dream states?

Here's a Glenn Ford site that claims to be "official." A brief Leonard Maltin biography of Van Heflin can be read here. Fascinating to see that Van Heflin appeared onstage with Katharine Hepburn in her legendary stage production of "The Philadelphia Story"; that he acted in one of my favorite films noirs, "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers"; and that Heflin was the uncle of the film director Jonathan Kaplan, about whose domestic thriller "Unlawful Entry" I raved here.

You can buy a DVD of "3:10 to Yuma" here; the film can be Netflixed here. Elmore Leonard's website is here. I notice that Elmore's favorite of the Westerns he wrote is "Valdez is Coming." He doesn't list "3:10 to Yuma" as one of the movies made from his books that he likes best. I wonder why.



posted by Michael at July 13, 2005


Couple things:

(1) Actors who have done better in the "men" instead of "boys" category---Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, the actor who played the Bad Guy in "Die Hard". Also, I'd argue a bit that Depp still had dew on him---his "Pirate" in "Pirates of the Carribean" was most definitely a man (particularly compared to Orlando Bloom). Also---Bruce Willis and John Travolta have convincingly done the "man" thing. Also, Denzel Washington. Also, sometimes, Tom Hanks. And Kevin Costner in both "Bull Durham" and "JFK".

(2) I haven't read any of McMurtry's westerns, but I read "The Last Picture Show" and "Terxasville"---great books, great writer.

(3) The "female" version of westerns? I don't know about genre, but I can name some movies that I think did it---"Julia", "Sophie's Choice", "Working Girl", "My Beat Friend's Wedding." Movies which aren't exclusively about "getting the boy" (although sometimes that's a part of it). (Just think about an era when both "Julia" and "Sophie's Choice" actually got made. What major female films like that exist now? Who will take Fonda or Streep's place?).

4) I'm no expert on westerns, but I have heard from many that "The Searchers" is the best of 'em all. I saw "High Noon" again recently---I hate to commit blasphemy, but it was...kinda boring. The bad guys were too clean-cut, Coop was a bit too wooden.

Posted by: annette on July 13, 2005 03:34 PM

"Lonesome Dove" is kind of an avalanche. You may not note the rocks pinging your head right now, but eventually you're going to notice the landslide is burying you. Give it time.

Though it's kind of a schlock western, "My Name Is Nobody"
is one of my faves. I love the premise. I like the comedy. The payoff is good.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on July 13, 2005 03:38 PM

>>These days, the sci-fi film seems to be playing something of the same role as the Western once did. It's fun to think about the similarities: the emphasis on the limitless landcape, the love of adventure, the question of moral development.

Joss Whedon's TV-series "Firefly", a mix of sci-fi and Western conventions, fits that description perfectly. Although the series didn't last long, it was popular enough on DVD that a feature film is being released this fall. The series is really excellent, you should check it out.

And I totally agree with Annette about Cooper in High Noon -- very wooden in a take-your-medicine-it's-good-for-you movie.

Posted by: Bryan on July 13, 2005 03:51 PM

I haven't read McMurtry's other books, but I *loved* the book of Lonesome Dove. The miniseries, not so much. It's pretty good, but the book is better, IMHO.

Posted by: missgrundy on July 13, 2005 04:04 PM

Firefly is far more Western than Sci-Fi and the best thing I've seen on TV in the last 10 years. Check out the 2000 5 star reviews the box set has on Amazon. And you must see the series before the movie comes out in September.

Yes, it's that good!

Posted by: The Holzbachian on July 13, 2005 04:45 PM

Ralph (Rafe) Fiennes?

Just the fact that we have to pronounce Ralph "Rafe" is enough to stop the manliness.

I think this corroborates the idea that movie stars are blank slates on which we project our fantasies. And some of them only work with the opposite sex.

I can hardly imagine a more boring actor than Fiennes (his brother is worse, but more annoyingly than boringly). Yet women seem to like him.

The English Patient? Why would anyone fall for that morose guy? And the movie he made for J-Lo? Could there be less chemistry? I think that's the way most guys saw it.

Do guys like Tom Cruise? I would guess the highest paid actor in Hollywod has an IQ below 100.

Posted by: john massengale on July 13, 2005 05:56 PM

McMurtry writes good stuff, ya'll.

Personally, I love a good western. Old, new, doesn't matter.

Question: Do 2B readers classify "Dances With Wolves" as a "western"?

I love spaghetti westerns, too. Although Clint wins the biggest prize, I really enjoy the "darkness" of "Once Upon A Time In The West".

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on July 14, 2005 12:46 AM

I saw Valdez is Coming when it first came to theaters (early '70s?), and it remains one of my favorite Westerns. I've always been stumped about the low ratings given by critics. To me, it's the ultimate underdog movie, with Burt's performance a marvel of subdued yet slowly building existential tension. When his haggard, disheveled, laughingstock constable finally breaks out the uniform and weaponry of past glory days, I always want to jump up and shout like a kid. Of course, I have no doubt that G.W. Bush would despise the character of Valdez -- a humble seeker of justice going up against impossible odds and a Western regime of privilege and malignancy.

Posted by: Tim B. on July 14, 2005 09:24 AM

OK, you can drop "Rafe" from the list--I knew that one would generate controversy!! :) See "Quiz Show" or the cover of Vanity Fair when he did "Hamlet" on Broadway if you want to get What Women See.

As for Cruise--I dunno, it was MEN who liked "Risky Business" and "Top Gun"---not women so much! (Although he was definitely more "boy" than "man" in those). And I know plenty of guys who enjoyed "A Few Good Men" quite a bit. And, yes, I agree, he does not seem to be a brain surgeon in real life.

Posted by: annette on July 14, 2005 02:41 PM

Just wanted to say that I loved this post. I love westerns for all the same reasons you ascribe. When I watch a western there's open space on the screen, big vistas to fall into, a big playing field on which to play the game of life. My favorite westerns are morality plays. The hero must stand against the evil, the greedy, and the cowards, and stand for something bigger than himself. In my life if I see a kid pocket something in a store I go up to the kid and say something, "Hey, take that out of your pocket kid". When the landlord next door fails to cleanup his property I seek him out and let him know I'm displeased. My point is that from westerns I got the idea in my head that it was a mans role to be a man, and to set others on the right course, and to never shy away from that duty. Westerns also taught that you could do this with humility and humor. These values are not found in any form of media I can think of today. No examples are shown of how one "is" a man.
Lastly, the point you attribute to David Ansen about the boyishness of todays actors as compared to those of years gone is spot on.

Posted by: John Eyler on July 14, 2005 03:08 PM

MB--Brilliant essay. It was a real pleasure to read it.

Tim B. --I'm astonished (but delighted)to hear from another fan of "Valdez is Coming." It's the ultimate turn-of-the-underdog movie, however goofy.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 14, 2005 03:12 PM

Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman as well as Clive Owen fit into Generation X (I think) and are men. They're just not Generation X Americans. The best actors in Hollywood no longer seem to be Americans. What does everyone else seem to have? Lots of theatre training. Oh, and men.

Posted by: lindenen on July 15, 2005 08:37 PM

Great westerns are very much subjective. While many movie buffs and fans talk of "Shane," I found it boring and less than wonderful. "High Noon" had poor acting and weak characterizations, but the STORY was exceptional.

The ultimate Western morality play was probably the Duke's lesser know drama, "Angel and the Badman"

Sadly, as strong a film as Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" leaves little mark on the Western Scene. Much move entertaining were his Spaghetti Westerns, capped by "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly."

These all use a "man" (whatever your definition) as the core. We haven't lost the concept, we have only lost the writer's ability to put it on the screen. In a society that fears self protection, self reliance and instead supports and defends the offender, the concept of a "man" that you endorse cannot exist, so most liberal writers can't formulate such a character.

This could lead into a discourse about the 2nd amendment so I'll cease here. I love good westerns, whether they be morality plays or just plain fun. To get an idea of where my head's at try:

Angel and the Badman
North to Alaska
The Outlaw Josey Wales

Posted by: Harvey Berger on July 17, 2005 12:59 AM

One small thought: it's tidy to divide the world up into Westerns, vigilante films and war movies, but aren't all three of these the same thing with different scenery? All deal (more or less honestly, perhaps) with the issue enunciated with exceptional honesty by Robt.E.Lee: "It's good that war is so horrible, or we might love it too much." (Or words to that effect.)

Whereas much of the sci-fi in recent decades seems to give the 'horrible' part of the above expression a miss. Which probably explains the boy v. man issue: the man has to deal with the downside as well as the excitement of violence.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 17, 2005 02:11 PM

I'd add two westerns to a favorite list:
John Ford's "Rio Grande" because of the touching characterizations and Howard Hawks' "Red River" because it has one of the greatest soundtracks ever written for any movie. Oh, I almost forgot "The Wild Bunch"--I could go on and on...

Posted by: Steveg on July 19, 2005 01:33 AM

Hawks hated "High Noon" and "3:10 to Yuma" and his response to both was the great "Rio Bravo".

Posted by: grandcosmo on July 19, 2005 09:26 PM

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