Against all odds, a man must deliver a captured outlaw to the afternoon prison train.
In 1974 Toronto took the bold step of enhancing its system of electric streetcars at a time when they had been virtually abandoned in North America as city transportation. A new design was in order and industrial designer Claude Gidman was the handed the task and the question: should a new streetcar be a sleek urban bullet of contemporary design or something less dramatic. Gidman chose to extend the visual legacy of the streetcar rather than upend it and, while the new design incorporated relevant ergonomic and environmental upgrades from the 1930s version, riders experienced the newer streetcars like compatible cousins of the vintage cars that shared the same downtown tracks. 3:10 to Yuma which began as a short story in 1953 and has seen two film adaptations made in 1957 and 2007 exists in much this way: spanning five decades, these three iterations of the story shift along on the same rails, each version advancing the narrative while remaining deferential to its predecessor.
Elmore Leonard’s short story was published in 1953, the year after the successful release of High Noon in which tension builds towards the arrival of a fateful train carrying outlaws sworn to kill Gary Cooper’s marshal. Echoing High Noon’s ticking clock, Leonard’s lawman guards a prisoner in a hotel awaiting the arrival of the 3:10 train that will take the outlaw to a prison in Yuma Arizona. Standing in the way of the lawman’s duty is the outlaw’s vicious gang surrounding the hotel and the handcuffed outlaw himself who uses all his wiles to undermine the deputy’s resolve.
Screenwriter Halsted Welles kept Leonard’s hotel conflict as the centerpiece of the 1957 film adaptation and backed it up with an invented story of a rancher (Van Heflin) living on hard times who accepts Wells Fargo’s two hundred dollars to take outlaw Ben Wade (Glen Ford) to the prison train. In turn, writers Michael Brandt and Derek Hass (2 Fast 2 Furious) kept Halsted’s backstory for their 2007 adaptation but upped the ante for Christian Bale’s rancher, giving him the additional burdens of a sickly son and an amputated foot, his legacy from the Civil War.
If all this seems like excessive motivation it’s certainly true that audiences didn’t always want such explicit crosses for their heroes to carry. The short story’s deputy marshal doesn’t need special reasons to do his job and both films depart from the original’s understated hero who performs his duty bravely and competently because those qualities are simply part of who he is. Leonard’s story cares less about the hero’s character arc and more about the hero’s character.
These days, however, the John Wayne cowboy is a hard sell. We prefer our heroes to have a plight that intersects with the plot and we want those personal challenges to be detailed and specific. We’ve become suspicious of virtues like courage and resolve that appear shopworn when they’re presented without context. So if Halsted and Hass and Brandt gilded the rancher’s hardship lily, their strategy moves us closer to the action, creating serious doubt about an outcome that might otherwise have felt like a forgone conclusion.
Writer Welles fleshed out the personality of Elmore Leonard’s Ben Wade and created an amalgam of ironic charm, ruthlessness, and womanizing that Hass and Brandt retained including the pivotal scene where Ben Wade seduces the lady bartender while hunting posses and fleeing gang members whirl around him. Ben Wade energizes both movies the way Robert Louis Stephenson’s rogue pirate Long John Silver lit up Treasure Island, his villainy at once repellent and attractive, confounding the viewer’s judgment while pulling one deeper into the story. Glen Ford brought Ben Wade to life in 1957 and Russell Crowe added cockiness and unpredictability to the part in 2007.
Haas and Brandt correctly saw the 1957 version as a two-act play and added a rollicking middle section full of fights, horseback chases, and deadly confrontations that we tend to think western movies are all about. And director Robert Mangold makes the most of it, transforming the earlier black and white film into a vivid and active wild west setting for the solid drama.
Remakes don’t succeed when wrong choices are made about what to keep and what to discard. The 3:10 to Yuma films work because they never try to eclipse the original. It’s interesting to see Halstead Welles’ name listed in the screenwriting credits for the 2007 film, along with Brandt and Haas. Although he had died by the time the new version had begun Welles, like Elmore Leonard before him, had already made his contribution.