Christian Bale (l) and Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma

The new film 3:10 to Yuma isn’t going gangbusters at the box office, which is a pity, as it’s a pretty good movie, has basically sound values, and is a Western and not overly revisionistic about it.

Based on a superb short story by Elmore Leonard and preceded by a taut 1957 version directed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford as the outlaw and Van Heflin as the cash-strapped rancher who tries to bring him to justice, the new film features fine performances by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the roles of outlaw and rancher, respectively.

Crowe makes a superb villain, and is better than Ford was in the 1957 version. Crowe plays the character as superficially charming—superficially very charming indeed—but thoroughly heartless under the deceptive facade. As such he is in earthly terms as dangerous as the devil himself.

Bale excellently portrays his character’s anxiety over the possibility of losing his ranch and being unable to support his wife. Also interesting is his relationship with his adolescent son, who is not exactly impressed with the rancher’s level of success in life and is initially attracted by the outlaw’s impressive ability to get things done and grab what he wants.

Bale gives his character a stolidness reminiscent of Gary Cooper while expressing the character’s deep worries with the subtlety of a Randolph Scott rather than the openness of a Jimmy Stewart, which I think is a very good choice. This film adds more evidence that Bale is one of the best movie actors of our time.

Christian Bale in 3:10 to Yuma 

Ultimately, Bale’s character must choose whether to make a Christlike sacrifice of his own life in order to provide for his family, and the film does a good job throughout of exploring in fairly reasonable depth the various moral issues it brings up—which is a typical strength of the Western. Insistent traditionalists may not be entirely satisfied with Bale’s character as a hero, but I think he is indeed a real hero, at least by the end of the film, and that he is a good man at heart throughout the narrative.

A central theme of the film is money and how people respond to its lure, which is true of most classic Westerns, though most people probably do not realize that about the genre. In 3:10 to Yuma, the theme is powerful both in its importance to the central narrative and in a recurrent, subtle motif of showing various monetary transactions, and less subtly but quite effectively in Bales’ character’s repeated fondling of a piece of jewelry he owns that could get his family out of debt but which he will not part with because it means too much to him.

The ending of the film involves some behavior by Crowe’s character that seems wildly inconsistent with his characterization thereto and what one would expect of him, but if I recall correctly it’s simply a more elaborate presentation of what Ford’s character did in Daves’s film. Ultimately a line of dialogue does explain why Crowe’s character appears to have had such a radical change of heart, but until then it seems more than a bit odd and is rather jarring.

That said, 3:10 to Yuma is a good, solid modern Western with interesting characters and moral conflicts and two superb performances by Crow and Bale.