Way Out West . . .

As part of my seemingly never-ending prep for the Iras, which take place in our humble home Saturday night (and if you don't know about the Iras, go to the postings for March 25 of last year for the gory details), Margo and I found ourselves watching the James Mangold remake of 3:10 to Yuma last night. As James Cagney and Horst Bucholz say about vivisection in One, Two, Three, it shouldn't happen to a dog. I'm a bit baffled about the thought process that leads a man to remake a film with which he is so clearly out of sympathy; the fact that Mangold and his writers have kept almost nothing from the Delmer Daves film is not inherently a problem, but what they've chosen to replace what they left out is so attenuated, so feeble that it defies comprehension.

By now you've either seen the Mangold or you probably don't intend to. As regular readers know, I'm a convert on the origiinal, having only seen it last year. I think it may be the single most underrated western of the '50s (and given what a great decade that was for the genre, this is high praise). But a film inevitably reflects its period and I can certainly understand a director who, 50 years later, feels the urge to revisit a good piece of material, to reimagine it for his own time. Too bad that this one hasn't got much to add to the discussion.

What does link the two films, besides genre and basic situation -- poor farmer, almost beaten by drought, agrees to put outlaw on the title conveyance and must face down the bad man's gang -- is that each, in a way that reflects the period in which it was made, is an examination of the nature of masculinity and the social responsibilities implied by being a man in America. That the new version has a very confused notion of what those things mean is not surprising; in the early years of the 21st Century, I suspect most of us are uncertain about what it means to be a man. (Sam Shepard probably said it best in The Tooth of Crime: "Teach me to be a man." "A man is too hard. . . . Too many doors into that room.") So William (Logan Lerman), the older son of the farmer Dan Evans (Christian Bale), is presented with two competing visions of male identity. His father is dour, humorless and unhappy, broke and broken by his life experiences, a compromiser and something of a downbeat realist. By comparison the outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is jaunty, aggressive, self-assured and dangerous in an enticing way. (Or he would be if Crowe weren't such a charmless lug; if he weren't good-looking, he could be the new Broderick Crawford.)

Okay, here's your warning:

Spoiler Coming -- Avert Your Eyes If Must!!!

But at the end of the film, when Dan successfully gets his prisoner onto the train, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), Wade's second-in-command, shoots him to death. Then Wade steps down from the train, looks incredulously at Charlie and kills him and everyone else in the gang, before getting back on the train to Yuma Prison. So what exactly is the lesson that William is supposed to learn from this? What is Mangold saying about manhood?

The most interesting notion I gleaned from 24 hours of turning this film over and over in my mind was the realization that, fundamentally, the western genre is very much
about the nature of masculinity, among its many other themes. Even a gender-bending western like Johnny Guitar pivots to a large extent around the competing visions of male identity presented by Johnny Logan, the Dancing Kid, Bart, Corey and Old Tom and how Turkey drinks them in. Sure, the final gunfight is between Vienna and Emma, but it starts with Mercedes McCambridge putting one right through Scott Brady's generous forehead. For Ray, in Johnny Guitar as in almost all his films, masculinity is performance, it's dressing up and accessorizing: Jim Stark's red jacket, which ends up on Plato, his ardent worshipper; the Kid snatching up Emma as an unwilling dance partner; Tommy Farrell using his "father's" pocket watch to milk tears from jurors in Party Girl; the knife fight in Hot Blood, like the "chickie run" in Rebel, a theatrical presentation of male ardor rechanneled. That's why I'm always surprised that Ray made so few westerns and, with the exception of Johnny Guitar, they're among his weaker films.

But, to return to the genre, the shifting sands of male identity and desire intersect quite neatly with the other major themes of the western. The whole garden vs. wilderness dichotomy is really about what it means to be civilized in an modernizing world, about abandoning your guns to live by the law (
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), learning to accept a sexualized Other (notably in the Aldrich films Apache and Ulzana's Raid), deciding what part women and children will play in this one-time wilderness as it transitions to garden status (just about every western you can name).

I wonder if there is any other major genre in American film that is as centered on questions of masculinity as this one. I suppose if you accept the old Laura Mulvey line that film is always about the male gaze, yearning to possess the female, then on some level they all do. But even Mulvey has moved away from that position.

At any rate, although I think the film is a pretty complete failure, I'm glad
3:10 to Yuma did good business. Maybe we can get westerns on a more regular basis made again.