by HELEN GEIB
Fall last year brought the release of two fine Westerns, 3:10 to Yuma, out on DVD today, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. They are about as different as two films in the same genre can be, yet share a central preoccupation with the cultural myths surrounding the old West outlaw.
3:10 to Yuma’s outlaw is Ben Wade (the ever charismatic Russell Crowe). Wade is a larger than life personality who dominates his gang and gained his considerable notoriety largely through force of personality. The other force behind his criminal success is his superior intelligence and it is that, conjoined with his rare degree of self-awareness, that makes him an almost irresistibly attractive figure to young William Evans.
William is the eldest son of the film’s second principal, Dan Evans (played in a typically intense performance by Christian Bale), and the primary witness to the contest of wills between his father and Wade that drives the story. The boy is also the contest’s prize in the eyes of his father, who is determined not to let his influence over his son’s life be overshadowed by the outlaw’s. William is more a means than an end for Wade, as he tries to use the son to provoke the father into abandoning his determination to put Wade on the titular prison train.
More fundamentally, Wade plays up to William’s admiration as a way to test Dan’s character. Dan exemplifies a different way of life to the outlaw as well as to the son; Wade’s battle with himself to resist acknowledging the respect he feels for the other man, and the choices in his own life such respect would demand, occupies the dramatic heart of the film.
At one point fairly early on in the story, William is shown holding a dime novel. The dime novel has become such a cultural touchstone that only that brief shot is needed to establish the character as an impressionable young man with a penchant for romanticizing the outlaw life. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ford is often shown with dime novels, but unlike his fictional descendant, outlaw worship and visions of riding with his outlaw heroes dominate his life.
Ford is an ordinary, not very bright, rather unlikeable, painfully non-introspective young man. His fantasies of criminal fame would almost certainly have gone unrealized if he had not had the misfortune to be the younger brother of a minor member of the James gang. Brother Charlie was Ford’s passport into the gang and a whim of Jesse’s brought him into the inner circle, making him first a witness to its breakdown and then the final catalyst to its end.
An author’s contrivance was necessary to bring together outlaw Ben Wade and struggling rancher Dan Evans; the result an illuminating and redemptive contest between equals. Reality put Robert Ford into the path of Jesse James. The end of Ford’s childish dreams was tragic and pitiable.
Other new releases this week: Dragon Wars, Eagle vs. Shark, The Golden Door, Joshua, Sunshine