[7 September 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
SAN FRANCISCO—Meanwhile, back at the hotel ...
After a photo shoot staged at Marin County, Calif., horse stables, James Mangold and Peter Fonda are back at the hotel. Like gunfighters at high noon, they’re squared off at 50 paces or so—but sitting across the hall from each other for separate interviews.
Mangold directed “3:10 to Yuma,” the remake of a 1957 Western, and Fonda plays a grizzled bounty hunter. Russell Crowe leads a gang of murderous outlaws, and Christian Bale plays a struggling Arizona rancher married to Gretchen Mol.
Bale’s character, Dan Evans, a Civil War veteran, is about to lose his land either to the drought or the coming railroad. When Crowe’s Ben Wade finally is captured, Evans signs on to the dangerous but well-paying job of delivering him to the town of Contention, Ariz. There, Wade will be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma, to stand trial.
Van Heflin and Glenn Ford starred in the original 50 years ago. Elmore Leonard wrote the story “3:10 to Yuma” for Dime Western magazine in 1953.
That was then, the 1950s, when cowboy movies were Hollywood’s biscuits and gravy, and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences nominated “Shane” and “High Noon” for Oscars.
Mangold fervently hopes movie audiences will embrace Westerns once again.
“The Western is one of the most undersold, undervalued American creations,” he says. “We created rock `n’ roll, and we gave it to the British. We created jazz and, in large part, gave it to Europe. We created the Western, and we gave it to Italy. I think the Western has been hurt by the misassumption that these movies are period or historical dramas, or kind of dusty tales of white hats and black hats.
“Or that they’re corny. In fact, they’re rarely corny. I don’t think `Shane’ is corny. I don’t think `The Searchers’ is corny. I don’t think `High Noon’ is corny. The pictures themselves and the darkness they investigate and the sophistication of the characters they’re examining are actually way ahead of most of what’s happening these days.
“And I feel bad sometimes when people talk about white hats and black hats. I haven’t seen a Western with that kind of polarity of characters since those crummy Gene Autry movies.”
The notion of good guys vs. bad guys is not valid, says Mangold, because no one is completely one way or the other. An actor playing Adolf Hitler, for instance, must believe he is doing the right thing inside that role.
“There is no way you can do a good job playing it like you’re evil,” says Mangold, who previously directed the Johnny Cash-June Carter Cash biopic “Walk the Line” (for which Reese Witherspoon won a best actress Oscar), as well as “Girl, Interrupted” and “Heavy.”
“The real lesson I don’t think we ever seem to learn in our lives is that despicable acts are committed by people who think they’re doing the right thing. Russell Crowe wouldn’t have been interested in playing a cat that was some kind of Dick Dastardly.”
Crowe’s Ben Wade is actually quite charming, very much the ladies’ man. He is a legend in the 1880s West, one of those notorious criminals whose exploits are romanticized in dime novels.
And he’s a lot tamer than Byron McElroy, the bounty hunter whom Fonda plays.
“You see in the movie that I am a very evil person,” says Fonda, 67. “I killed men, women, children. He (Wade) shoots people, but he’s got his pack of dogs, and they do all the dirty work. He’s not as evil as we think he should be. Or as evil as me.”
Fonda grew up on Westerns. They’re kind of a family legacy.
His father, Henry, starred in “The Cheyenne Social Club,” “A Big Hand for the Little Lady” and “How the West Was Won,” among others. His sister Jane has “Comes a Horseman” and “Cat Ballou” in her film credits. And Fonda chose the 1971 Western “The Hired Hand” for his directorial debut.
“Westerns just happen to be a wonderful way of telling a story about today in the past tense,” he says. “It’s the American mythology. What the Greeks had in their mythology, we have in our Western.”
Shooting for “3:10 to Yuma” took place last winter in northern New Mexico. The snow in the movie is real. In fact, Mangold says, everything in the movie is real. There are no special effects, no computer-generated action. It’s an old-fashioned Western.
And the three-month shoot was brutal.
“It was very cold, very rough, very dusty, but I had a lot of very intense and strong men on the set who were very into playing these roles,” Mangold says. “One thing I’m very proud of is that there are not many guys who could pull off a movie like this as actors, and I think we have a collection just born to be in a picture like this.”
The director was happy to land Fonda, who is known for riding motorcyles (even before “Easy Rider”) but also is quite adept on horseback. Crowe owns a horse ranch in Australia, and Bale is a skilled rider.
So the three actors conducted a horse camp on set for the rest of the cast.
“You’d be amazed at the challenges I faced with a bunch of actors from Malibu who have never been on a horse before, trying to hit marks on their horses and say their lines,” says Mangold, shaking his head and laughing.
The 43-year-old director had waited two decades to make the movie.
While attending the California Institute for the Arts in the early 1980s, he worked as a teaching assistant for Alexander Mackendrick, dean of the film department. Mackendrick directed such movies as “Sweet Smell of Success,” and he co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Man in the White Suit.”
Mackendrick had his young protege document shot-by-shot breakdowns of old movies. One was “3:10 to Yuma,” which was directed by San Francisco-born Delmer Daves.
“It had a huge impact on me,” Mangold says. “I just loved the movie. I loved the structure. I loved the story and the themes in it about honor and courage and celebrity vs. notoriety and right and wrong.
“It was very sophisticated in the sense that, when I saw `The Silence of the Lambs,’ it echoed a lot of things I loved about `3:10 to Yuma,’ which was that the villain, the face of evil, was so disarmingly charming that you could get won over by him.”
In fact, Mangold based the 1997 crime thriller “Cop Land,” which he wrote and directed, on “3:10 to Yuma.” He gave Sylvester Stallone’s character the name Sheriff Freddy Heflin, in honor of Van Heflin.
“I love that old movie,” he says.