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The Blue & Gray Press | June 29, 2017

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New School vs. Old School: Westerns

BY SERENA EPSTEIN

“3:10 TO YUMA” (2007)

I have a confession to make: I’ve never liked Westerns. It’s difficult to become emotionally attached to a genre that essentially consists of only one film. Poor miner/farmer/townsperson is terrorized by outlaw/neighbor/ruthless businessman. Insert crying wife/kids/saloon girls.

Valiant but morally ambiguous stranger turns up just in time to save the day. Wife/kids/saloon girls stop crying and end credits are accompanied by joyful, feel-good music.

So you can understand my initial feeling, no doubt, that in seeing “3:10 to Yuma” I was taking one for the team. But oh! Ah! Once trapped in the darkness of the local movie theater with my least favorite genre on screen, something changed.

I found myself being seduced by a plot that was new, and actors who did more than simply drawling out their lines and spitting grumpily at each other’s glittering silver spurs.

Russell Crowe and Christian Bale drive this movie, which is startlingly new yet still manages to maintain the cantankerous spirit of one of the old Westerns.  As “badass” is not generally considered to be a legitimate film description, I suppose I’ll have to provide you with a secondary, more helpful one. (And you thought helpfulness was not in my nature after last week’s review of “Brazil!”)

Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) aids in the capture of notorious and impeccably dressed outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) only to end up as one of Wade’s armed escorts to the prison train to Yuma.

There are adventures! There are mind games, violence, and explosives! There are scantily-clad saloon girls! This film even satisfies your cowboy and Indian cravings with a few well-placed Apache warriors. But through all this bloodshed and bravery there remains one key question: will they make the 3:10 to Yuma?

Balancing gravity and levity, “3:10 to Yuma” jumps from shoot-outs and clandestine plotting to hilarious lines like “even bad men love their mommas.” And more brownie points are awarded for painting the outlaw as a sympathetic character à la “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

This film starts out a little weak but builds steadily, arriving at a triumphant conclusion that should leave even the most fastidious filmgoers satiated.

“SHANE”  (1953)

“Shane” is the kind of Western they just don’t make anymore, but probably should. Given its crystal clear lens of 1950’s optimism, it is unsurprising that this film is, very simply, about good and evil. When examined closely, however, “Shane” is anything but straightforward.
Joe Starrett, played by Van Heflin, and many of the neighboring farmers, are terrorized by local cattleman Ryker, who is trying to drive them off of their land. The situation is desperate, with Starrett readying himself to take on Ryker and all of his hired men, when a stranger rides onto Starrett’s farm.

The man introduces himself as Shane, and remains with the family as a hired hand. They embrace him, despite various clues that hint at a mysterious and checkered past that he is clearly trying to leave behind. But when things heat up, Shane’s acceptance of his past may be the only thing that can save this family from destruction.

It is difficult to say whether this movie should be classified as adventure, drama, action, or even an elaborate exercise in character development. The cinematography is also a strong point, and this alone places it above many similar Westerns made in that era.

But “Shane’s” main selling point has to be the dynamic characters. More than anything, this film is about relationships between people, both friendly and antagonistic, and inner conflict for these characters can be more real than even the most serious outer conflict.

Shane, played by film legend Alan Ladd, experiences this psychological turmoil as he battles with both past and present, all the while feeling emotional attachment to this new family that has been so accepting of him.

In “Shane,” the protagonist is a real person, not just someone contrived to ‘save the day,’ as characters so often are. And that has to be worth something.

Ever obstinate, I still don’t like Westerns.

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