Reviews for 3:10 to Yuma offer a lot of talk about the revivification of a dead genre. Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post critic (whose novel turned movie Shooter shows he knows a little about guns) comments that the success of the Russell Crowe/Christian Bale western will mean "there will be more westerns, and we old goats can die happy, with our boots on, our guns holstered, and the sun at our back, humming Ricky Nelson's 'My Rifle, My Pony and Me' as we go to Jesus." A slightly obscure sentence to those under 50, but I'll be clarifying this line in a minute.
I agree with Hunter that more westerns is a good thing, and if someone can make them without the elements with which James Mangold swamped his hit -- the ornamenting of a simple story with Iraq malaise, irresolute everybody-wins endings, and other add-ons -- so much the better. Stuff that mostly just expanded the running time and sold the story to people who prefer action/adventure films to westerns.
Some critics are claiming that Mangold has added complex morality to a genre that's mostly good guys v. bad guys. Such critics really need another look at My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, or better yet Howard Hawks' serio-comic western Rio Bravo. Here, a group of unsteady deputies, one of them one-legged, led by a slightly nervous sheriff, tough out the same situation as in 3:10 to Yuma: an army of mercenaries encircling a town where a jailed captive waits for his transfer to prison. That Hawks saw the comedy in the situation is no surprise. The director of His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby needed no schooling in the craft of comedy. And just as his The Big Sleep is the ultimate guide to how to be a private detective, he was able to make John Wayne's John T. Chance a light comic figure, even when facing possibility of certain death.
Presidio County, Texas, somewhere close to the Mexican border and the Rio Grande, called "Rio Bravo" by the Mexicans. A drunk (Dean Martin) with a battered hat and brick-red long-johns showing under his tattered coat turns up at a cantina. This local, popularly known as El Borrachero ("the drunk"), pantomimes his great thirst. Taking mercy on him, Joe Burdett, a thug at the bar (Claude Akins) presents a silver dollar ... then tosses it into a spittoon for the drunk to fish out. Crawling, the drunk is about to get his coin when a pair of boots place-kicks the cuspidor out of reach. It's John Wayne, with a look of bemused contempt on his face. Peeved that his game has been interrupted, Joe gets violent and murders a bystander who interferes; team action gets the killer knocked cold and hauled into the jail. There, a bizarre old one-legged geezer called Stumpy (Walter Brennan) keeps a round the clock gun on the prisoner, ready to shoot him dead if anyone tries to break him out.
This breakout is likely, since Joe is the kid brother of a unscrupulous and wealthy rancher Nathan (John Russell). Nathan seals off the town, in an attempt to force his brother out of jail. When threats don't work, he hires gunmen at $50 a head to press the point. Sheriff Chance holds the fort, waiting for the federal marshal to arrive within a week. While looking out for the hired killers, he's also distracted by a lady gambler (Angie Dickinson) who never can quite seem to leave on the next stagecoach.
When El Boracherro was sober, three years back, he was a deputy known as "Dude," and he was good a gunman as there was in the west. Much of the movie is about the rehabbing of this habitual drunkard, keeping him off the whiskey until he gets his self-esteem back. (it's the material that was parodied in Blazing Saddles, with Gene Wilder in the role.) Hawks' regular subject -- the question of whether a person was good enough to take the stress, to display all necessary grace under pressure -- is on display here. It's leavened with an older man's understanding of weakness: it's no eternal shame if you fail the test. Keepings one's courage is all-important, but to have strong nerves is a rare enough quality that it's understood when its lacking. And the way to reinforce that courage is by plentiful slack: by yacking with friends, with drinks all around for those who can hold their liquor, and even with a sing-along of the tune Hunter mentioned.
Just many people used to go to the west to recuperate from lung diseases, everyone around Rio Bravo has a case of the nerves. Except, that is, for the smart, efficient and cold gunslinger Colorado, played by Ricky Nelson: "so good he doesn't have to prove it," says Chance. Considering the makeshift posse, Chance's old friend (Ward Bond) comments, "That's all you got?" "That's what I've got," Chance answers.
Here's the quivering drunk trying to hold out against thirst. The old cracked Stumpy eventually gets so querulous about not being appreciated that Wayne has to calm him with a kiss on the top of his bald head. Even the cool lady gambler goes a little neurotic trying to chisel a response out of the rock-like J. T. Chance. In one of Wayne's most essential movie scenes, he's on night patrol looking for lurking gunmen, and he gets spooked and almost shoots a donkey. Wayne holds his carbine rifle like a walking stick, or a hiker's staff; he leans on it. To try to put more fear into the lawmen, the villain Nathan tries some psychological torture. He hires a Mexican band to play the infamous "El Deguello" the bugle-call played at the Alamo, meaning that no prisoners will be taken and all throats are to be cut. (Dmitri Tiomkin's arrangement, with trumpet obbligatos, is a taste of how Ennio Morricone would outfit the sonic landscapes of Sergio Leone's westerns.)
Hawks started a western revival with this hit, at a time when westerns were considered television fodder, lowbrow stuff for kids and yokels. Part of the reason the genre temporarily dried up is that the film High Noon had been considered the end of the line. It was the realistic and dour kind of western, "a civics lesson," said Pauline Kael, meant to oppose the thousands of white hat-black hat melodramas that came before it. It's inevitable. Intellectuals who never watched westerns acclaimed High Noon as a classic that transcended the sordid little genre. (You know the drill, sci-fi fans, and so does Ursula K. Leguin, as this very funny essay proves.) Hawks hated High Noon and intended Rio Bravo to be the opposite of that Gary Cooper film ... as well as a very similar movie, the original version of this year's hit: "I think it was called 3:10 to Yuma," Hawks said in this invaluable book by Joseph McBride. The resulting Rio Bravo was what Robin Wood called "a strongly traditional yet absolutely personal film," done in just the way Hawks liked to work: "If you can do characters, you can forget about plot. You just have the characters moving around." You didn't even need much room, either; this classic western doesn't even leave the frontier town.
These movies, when directed by people who know a little bit about the world, can be light on their feet, elastic and romantic. "The simplest form of drama--a gun, a death ..." Hawks told McBride. Unlike the action movies derived from westerns -- such as Die Hard With a Vengeance, an example I make because we all know how much Bruce Willis would like to be John Wayne -- westerns offer women a lot. There are beautiful horses, and beautiful men, often in beautiful clothes, those fine outlandish hats and those gold-thread embroidered vests. And they're the kind of movie where every woman gets an enormous amount of notice, and are often treated like something rare and holy. What men get out of westerns is too obvious to mention. We're eternally worried about matters of our toughness, our endurance, our sense of justice. Western movies are stages where we can live through the characters and see our fears and hopes played out. Both sexes, trapped in the noise and confinement of cities (more than half of the world's population, that's what the UN says) are suddenly in the presence of silence, freedom and wide open spaces. Dead? Westerns aren't even wounded.