The two big Westerns this past year were “3:10 to Yuma” for the nostalgic and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” for fans of Ingmar Bergman who seems to have channeled the latter movie through Warren Beatty to Brad Pitt. The former movie was a success at the box office and the latter was not, quite predictably. (Ingmar Bergman is rather out of fashion, spoiled by too much situation ethics, a loss of interest in Freud, or maybe just by a society moving too fast.) The former DVD had a voice-over and the latter did not, unpredictably. I was hoping for an explanation.
First of all, TAJJCRF was not, to my mind, a Western: it was a MID-Western. Very Minnesota, anti-romantic, debunking, near black-and-white, conscience-ridden, and bleak. The houses were nearly empty of furniture, the women never came out of the kitchen except to use the privy (I guess chamberpots were out of fashion), and there was a lot of brush. In a time period after WWII Westerns were a romantic study of heroes and then right after that was a pendulum-swing to debunking, the sophomoric idea that if you strip off the lies, what you find is a David Lynch sordid unreality in which everyone is a narcissist acting selfishly. So -- to this old bird -- it’s obvious sophomoric realism is where we’re at as soon as the Coward Robert Ford refuses to move his lips when he talks so we can tell what he’s saying. Sam Shepherd, playing Frank James, appears to be the only adult in the film when he holds his gun on Ford to make him leave. Then Shepard wisely exits the movie while the pond-scum gang sits around making dirty, knowing, high-school-kid talk about women. There’s a little hint of “Heaven’s Gate” when the train turns out to be packed with tiers of “steerage” folks. More than a hint when one considers the movie as a whole. The trouble with a system that depends upon one “money star” to make the film possible is that soon everything revolves around him and his dilemmas, instead of the script.
“3:10 to Yuma” has two heroes. Russell Crowe is the money star but he’s an Aussie, still rough. Bale is a classically trained Welsh actor. What can I say? Pretty hard to make fun of their acting. (I didn’t know until just now that Bale was the child protagonist of one of my favorite films: “Empire of the Sun.” I’d better watch it again! The boy who plays Bale’s son in this movie is as good.) “3:10’s” style dates back to the pre-debunking period: the director says so in the voice-over. He wants the movie to be “mythic” and I reckon it is. One of the volunteer critics on imdb.com lists all the impossibilities and improbabilities of the scenes and there are plenty. (The one that has caught attention is the gut-shot Fonda character who has surgery, gets on his horse and rides. Fonda himself says he HAS been gutshot and it’s possible.) But the viewer doesn’t much care in the moment. The sets are beautiful and conventionally Western. There are references to the present, but only in passing: none of the obsessive comparison to Iraq that “Soldier Blue” used in its parallel shots between Vietnam nightly news and Native American massacre.
What the creative team of “3:10” got straight in their heads -- more than TAJJCRF did -- was the historic context. Both Westerns are set in the most usual period for the genre, just following the Civil War, when many people (particularly men) were displaced and morally adrift, causing them to relate to strangers sometimes with generous compassion and other times with vicious destruction. Those they robbed always hoped for the generous side to come their way, but who knew what might trigger hatred? “3:10” hopes that the parallel in this sense will relate to the soldiers coming back from Iraq, but I think that won’t work. They forget that the Civil War happened here and Americans fought on both sides so that the trauma was as dislocating as being an Iraqi with Shiite against Sunni, home destroyed, family destroyed, mosque destroyed, and no place to go. No VA to rail at for not supplying enough therapy. No empty prairie in which to homestead. I doubt that occurred to this creative team. But at least they let Bale’s character’s moral anchor in his family come through as the highest value. Family anchors all moralities, except for the James boys, evidently.
I do think these two honorable attempts to revive Westerns will cause writers and “money stars” to dig deeper. I liked Kevin Costner’s efforts even though they’ve been sentimental and maybe even shallow. “Dances with Wolves,” more than any other movie, has probably made possible the gentle television family-anchored generational Westerns like “Into the West” or “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” neither of which resorted to an estranged loner to make points. The very fact that they are hours long, watchable on DVD at home like reading a book, makes it possible to tell a far more nuanced story than an hour and a half or even two-hour movie in a theatre. Western TV serials knew that and used it to develop character and community. Technology affects the genre as much as cultural shift.
But the cultural shift in the American West is immense and contradictory. Immigrants (esp. hispanics -- who are at least partly NA -- and wealthy refugees from the eastern cities) pour into the Western cities even as the water systems that make prairie cities possible are failing, overwhelmed. The small towns are shrinking (our water systems are also failing), there are not enough sources of electricity and much land is in CRP, meaning native grass monocultures. Much of the land is still owned by feds and all the land is regulated to a fare-thee-well, right down to numbering the predators. (They’re working on numbering the cows.)
I forget how many stories there are in the Naked City, but there have to be at least as many on the droughty plains. I salute two earnest attempts to tell definitive stories, which can only pave the way for more -- both better and worse.