I love movies both as entertainment and fun. I also appreciate them as a visual art form. Only people who share this kind of love can appreciate why I care about this subject. Some still see viewing films as a spiritual weakness. The old debate about reading fiction and enjoying stories, in this or any other form, will likely continue as long as serious Christians have strong opinions on these things. Some Christians will cite everyone from certain Church Fathers to Calvin and the Puritans, as resources who often railed against such art but I am not convinced. On another day maybe I’ll find the time to make my own case but for now let it suffice to say that I love good movies. Hey, I even love some average movies.

One genre of movie that I have not watched in some years is Westerns. When a friend recently urged me to see a new Western I was not all that interested but I took his advice and my mind has changed. This change has come because of two films, and perhaps a desire to get back to my own Armstrong family roots in the West.

First, there is the new movie 3:10 to Yuma, now playing in theaters across the country. Russell Crowe, even with his accent, plays a marvelous bad-guy role in this old West setting. A New York Times reviewer noted that, “Crowe, who wears the black hat in 3:10 to Yuma, is a native of New Zealand. Christian Bale, the good guy, was born in Wales. Lou Dobbs and other commentators who have lately been sounding the alarm about outsourcing, immigration and the globalization of the labor market may want to take note. The hero and the villain in a cowboy movie: are we going to stand by and let foreigners steal these jobs? Are no Americans willing to do them? Of course the western is a universal genre—one of the best recent examples, ‘The Proposition,’ comes from Australia—and it must be said that Mr. Crowe and Mr. Bale both do excellent work. They and a fine, all-American supporting cast, including Gretchen Mol, Ben Foster, Dallas Roberts and a surpassingly grizzled Peter Fonda, are the main reasons to see 3:10 to Yuma.”

Hollywood doesn’t produce many great Westerns these days, thus one reviewer rightly notes, “Watching a Western, with its horse-riding, cold-blooded killers and epic gunfights in raw-boned frontier towns, in a modern Cineplex is a novel experience.” So it is. This, in itself, made watching 3:10 to Yuma pure pleasure.

But 3:10 To Yuma is simply a great Western filled with grit, greed, dust, dirt, sweat and blood. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard it is set in the 1880s in the Arizona territory. (My father was born in Yuma, the year Arizona became a state, and his grandfather, thus my great-grandfather, helped settled the old West and the town of Phoenix. Maybe this explains my new fascination with Westerns to some extent.) 3:10 to Yuma is directed by James Mangold, who directed Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash story. (For those who care about these matters, 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of a 1957 film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin.) A gritty and mean Russell Crowe plays the captured outlaw ringleader Ben Wade, who is a clever hunter and thus the perpetually hunted. Christian Bale is Evans, an earnest rancher who wants his son to love and respect him in the worst way. Evans takes pay, which he desperately needs to save his little family, to help bring Wade to the 3:10 train that will carry him to the Yuma prison. I’ll not give away the conclusion but it is well-done. Throughout the story Wade leads a gang of men he personally describes as murderous animals. Foremost among them is Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), a lieutenant whose evil nature and loyalty means he’ll pursue his boss’ captors to the death no matter what it takes.

The emotional and spiritual essence of this fine film is found in the story of how Wade and Evans grow to appreciate one another in a most unusual way. Though they’re on opposite sides of life, rising threats from multiple directions lead them to become allies, at least in some sense of the word. One could say they actually begin to admire and respect one another, for very common human reasons that will be apparent to intelligent viewers.
Evans is a former Union Army sharpshooter who is trying to do things the right way by raising his family and protecting his limited assets. Doing right doesn’t pay off when so many others are doing wrong, such as burning his barn and killing his animals, and getting away with it because they have money and power. The script actually gives Bale few words, so the actor brilliantly communicates his hurt and disappointment through visual means such as angry eyes and a noticeably sad countenance.

Crowe’s character is also brilliantly played. (One could think Oscar nomination here I think.) Crowe reveals a Bible-quoting outlaw’s casual confidence linked to very sharp insights. This is, as one reviewer has called him, “a multi-layered bad guy.” Besides embarrassing the Southern Pacific Railroad and playing mind games with everyone around him, Wade amuses himself by drawing sketches that he undertakes with great detail.

3:10 To Yuma is pure action, but is also a great story well told and displays great characters. It was a real delight. I agree with the critic who noted that “It revitalizes such western staples as the stagecoach attack, Indian ambush and land-grabbing for the oncoming railroad. It’s an attention-holding ride through rough country of both the physical and spiritual kind.” It is, in short, a morality play that does a great job dealing with good and evil in ways that are not always clear.

The second Western that got me back into this genre is the mini-series from 1988, Lonesome Dove, based on the novel by the best-selling author Larry McMurtry. This series was originally aired on television and thus won a number of Emmy Awards at the time, rightfully so. It is a masterpiece and was rightly hailed by critics and audiences alike then. I had heard about it for years but seeing 3:10 to Yuma got me into the “Western” mood and I was not disappointed. The two-disc DVD set is 6 hours in length. There is also some factual additional material about the old West and cowboys that is quite valuable as well.

McMurtry’s novel won a Pulitzer Prize captured the pioneer spirit of the old West and this series is an inspiring performance in every way. The lead male actors are two of my favorites—Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. They are two former Texas Rangers who leave the South Texas town of Lonesome Dove to ride on an epic 2,500 miles cattle drive to begin a ranch in the beautiful setting of Montana. Along the way they meet criminals, storms and hostile Indians.

The series includes powerful supporting roles by Danny Glover, in what I think is one of his earliest film roles, and Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane and Robert Urich. In its own way Lonesome Dove was a Western mini-series that feels a lot like a modern 24 series in the old West. Once you start you want to press on to the finish quickly. Plan to devote four sittings since each part is 90 plus minutes in length. I agree with the critics who have said that this is a superb Western. It really captured my interest and kept it to the very end. It will even move you on an emotional level if you can be moved by films in this way. It also profoundly informed my view of the old West in new ways and showed me things about the characters who lived there and settled these wild territories in the 19th century, just like my great-grandfather, who went there as an attorney from Wisconsin after the Civil War. 

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  1. john wiers October 3, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    John, although we haven’t corresponded recently, I still read your blog regularly and miss some of the old infrequent, but very stimulating conversations we had in the past. I’m still in the Iowa City area. Perhaps we can catch up again soon. Anyway, your blog on westerns was very interesting because I love westerns and one of my hobbies is the history of the Old West. If you like westerns, you might want to try Silverado. If I’m not mistaken this was really one of Danny Glover’s earliest film roles and it also was an early film role for Kevin Costner, Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn and Jeff Goldblum, all of whom do wonderful jobs. It is a fine rendering of a classic western, with themes of good vs. evil, corrupt sheriff, land-grabbing wealthy rancher, etc. I think you’ll like it. By the way I really like your baseball posts. As a die-hard White Sox fan I, of course, was very disappointed in this season as you were, but I envy your access to seeing the Sox play.

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