Hostiles

Rumors of its demise, and so on. Every so often one hears of the passing of the western, the obituary of the genre being wheeled out and presented newly polished, typically, in equal parts respectful, regretful and dismissive. The gist tends to run along the lines that it once rose to prominence, becoming the quintessence of Americana, the imagery evoking the culture of a continent in the eyes of the world. And then it, just as it had achieved true greatness, it began its slow decline, growing tired and introspective to the point of unhealthiness, and finally feeling less relevant as its origins fade further into the past. Yet the western is arguably an integral part of cinema (not just an element of its history) and every time a wake is announced it appears somewhat premature. At the risk of mawkishness, the western constitutes the soul of Hollywood filmmaking, underpinning it and forever watching over it. The point of all this is that as frequently as the genre is lamented, just as frequently does it hint at a recovery. In truth, there have been many false dawns, and perhaps the expectations are either misplaced or too high. The western will never again dominate cinema, but a film like Hostiles (2017) suggests, to me anyway, that there are still stories to be told within the framework of the genre that have artistic merit.

The opening is harsh, make no mistake about that. It’s not so much that the violence is graphic (although there is a brief shot that could be described as such) as the fact it has a stark brutality. There are some moments in westerns that are remembered for this kind of frank depiction of frontier ruthlessness: think of Jack Palance’s shooting of Elisha Cook Jr in Shane or Henry Fonda wiping out a family in Once Upon a Time in the West. What Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) experiences here is on a par with those moments, an emotional gut punch that, quite naturally, leaves her slightly unbalanced for a time and colors her attitude and actions as she journeys through the film. And the whole piece is a journey, literal and metaphorical, following the progress of Captain Joe Blocker, a soldier of fearsome reputation and on the eve of his retirement, as he escorts an old enemy, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), from New Mexico to his spiritual home in Montana. Yellow Hawk is a dying man and his request to end his days in this fashion has been granted by the government. Blocker wants no part of this detail but is given no option and therefore sets out consumed with resentment and naked hatred, something not improved by the discovery of Mrs Quaid and her plight. To say more would, I feel, diminish the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, so I’ll confine myself to pointing out that this trek undertaken by a collection of damaged and broken souls is involving from start to finish. It is intense and violent at times but not in any gratuitous or nihilistic way, while the growth and emotional development of the characters is ultimately fulfilling and rewarding.

For me, the great appeal of the western is its timelessness and versatility, the ability to tell almost any story in an absorbing and satisfying way. The western always had a way of holding up a lens to the world around us, of taking its setting and trappings and allowing the viewer to examine the world around us through the prism of the past, by focusing on our humanity and reminding us that the challenges we face today have parallels in our past and may well arise again in our future. This is what I see as the central theme of Hostiles: the settling with the past. The film is essentially about characters coming to an arrangement with their own histories and subsequently of growing into an accommodation with themselves. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end of the film where Yellow Hawk and Blocker sit side by side and talk. Blocker tells his one time adversary that when he dies a piece of him will also go with the old chief. I think that’s what the message here comes down to, that confronting our past is not about rejecting it out of hand, but rather acknowledging that some aspects have to be left behind while others are retained and assimilated in order to move forward.

Until now, I’d not seen anything by Scott Cooper but his is a name I’ll be looking out for in future – he appears to have a genuine affinity for the genre and I hope he returns to it at some stage. I always feel westerns are at their best visually when they are shot outside on location and that’s the case here with some wonderful views of the (mainly) Arizona and New Mexico landscape. The only criticism I’d make of the film is the pace is allowed to drop on occasion and I feel the whole sub-plot with Ben Foster’s character is largely superfluous – some judicious cutting/rewriting here and there could have tightened the whole production up. Structurally, thematically and spiritually this movie harks back to the classic era, but scripts then would have been much more streamlined and pared down.

Christian Bale was impressive in his role as the battle-scarred captain, confident and efficient on the outside when faced with the various dangers and threats encountered along the way yet still entirely human as opposed to superhuman in more intimate situations. Frankly, his character arc is hugely satisfying and the end of the film simply feels fitting. What’s more, Bale comes across as wholly convincing as a westerner, a quality which is not so common among leading men these days. Wes Studi is no stranger to westerns of course and he gives another typically authentic performance that’s marvelously quiet. I also thought Rosamund Pike did fine work with just the right kind of vaguely off-center detachment to suit her part. It was nice too to see Stephen Lang, although he’s really only in the movie briefly.

So, Hostiles generally worked for me, and it’s been a good few years now since I came away from a cinema with that feeling about a western. I’d like to think  it might perform well enough to keep the genre from drifting off towards the sidelines immediately. I don’t think it’s a game changer but it’s a mature piece with a solid emotional core and well worth the time of anyone who has an interest in quality western movies.

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3:10 to Yuma

Posters

I guess, like everything else, the circumstances in which you view a movie will affect your perception of it. I just rewatched the 2007 3:10 to Yuma the other day having already reacquainted myself with the 1957 version the previous night. Now, I’ve seen the original many times and always held it in high regard although it’s not without its faults. So when I went to see the remake, during its theatrical run, I knew that the central story was a strong one and I was curious to see what it would turn out like. At the time I came away thinking that I had just seen a moderately entertaining but imperfect film. In short, I wasn’t overly displeased. The thing is though, I hadn’t seen the original for a few years at that point. Viewing the two versions so close together has forced me to alter my appraisal of the remake somewhat.

The plot of both films is derived from a short story by Elmore Leonard, and tells of a struggling Arizona rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin in the original, Christian Bale in the remake) who witnesses a stage robbery carried out by notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford in the original, Russell Crowe in the remake). When Wade is later captured Evans volunteers to escort him to the town of Contention and put him on the titular 3:10 to Yuma state prison. Evans hopes that the money he earns from this will be enough to see him and his family through the drought that’s crippling his ranch. There follows a battle for Evans’ soul as Wade tries to buy, persuade and cajole the desperate rancher into letting him go while the clock counts down and the threat of attack by the outlaw gang draws ever nearer.

Those are the necessarily common elements, but if a remake is to have any purpose it must add to or change certain aspects of the original. Firstly, the 2007 version expands the story and runs about a half hour longer, most of this extra time being used to depict the journey to Contention and introduce more characters. This doesn’t really come off successfully for, despite being crammed with incident, it simply serves to slow down the central thrust of the story: the conflict and relationship between Evans and Wade. Where the original cut straight to the chase, the remake forces the viewer to sit through a lot of implausible action which seems to exist merely to dispose of a few superfluous characters. By the time Evans and Wade reach Contention and hole up in the hotel the momentum has been lost and the tension levels have dropped. The DVD of the 2007 movie contains an extra feature which carries the title An Epic Explored, and that tells a tale. This is essentially a small, intimate story based around two men and covering a short period of time. The 1957 version succeeds admirably in telling this story, whereas the remake has ambitions to be something altogether grander yet falls short of fulfilling them.

We're going to Contention - Ben Foster

The other major difference in the two films is a change in emphasis and tone. The first movie presented Dan Evans as a man in a bad spot and dogged by ill fortune, but there was nothing pathetic or defeatist about him and the viewer can feel for him without ever being asked to. The new Dan Evans is, we are told over and over, a cringing loser who manages to elicit only pity from his captive rather than respect. In fact, even his family are contemptuous of him – Van Heflin’s distraught wife turned up in Contention to beg him to drop the matter and return home while Christian Bale’s other half disappears from the story early on like she just doesn’t give a damn what happens to him, and I’m not sure if I blame her. The ’57 movie showed Evans’ two boys to be a couple of nice respectful kids, while the ’07 one gives us a surly brat who never misses an opportunity to bad-mouth his father, regardless of the company they’re in, and left this viewer yearning to see him on the receiving end of a good hiding. All told, there are far too many jarringly modern touches to the remake; when Bale’s wife upbraids him for not making decisions together and his son throws another insult his way I was taken out of the film completely. Such moments defy all logic in terms of time and place – it’s akin to seeing a bunch of brawling cavemen interrupted by one of their number saying “Wait a minute fellas, surely we can talk this through like civilised men.”

As long as she has green eyes - Felicia Farr and Glenn Ford

Delmer Daves is a director who I feel has been severely underrated and a comparison of his work with that of James Mangold during two key sequences points this up. Take the scene with Glenn Ford and Felicia Farr first. When they stand on the porch and talk about their former lives there’s a very poignant sense of two lonely people and their sense of loss. As the camera follows Ford back into the saloon there’s a kind of innocent charm about his seduction of Farr, and then the camera zoom and music cue hit the mark perfectly when he asks the colour of her eyes. In contrast, Mangold just has Crowe sidle up behind Vinessa Shaw, grunt in her ear and off they go. The other sequence that highlights Daves’ superior handling of the material is during the lengthy wait in the hotel. While Ford stretches out on the bed he tries to tempt his captor into letting him walk with offers of a bribe. During this exchange the camera cuts back and forth between the faces of the two men, each time the focus zooms marginally closer on Van Heflin and ratchets up the tension. Mangold shoots the same scene mostly static and the result is that the tension doesn’t build and it simply falls flat.  Another problem is the ending of the remake. One criticism of Delmer Daves’ work was that his endings were often a bit of a cop out after what had gone before. The climax of the ’57 3:10 to Yuma was always its weakness but it feels deeply satisfying when compared to the absolute travesty that the remake offers as a conclusion. This is not to say that Mangold doesn’t do anything well. His handling of the action sequences is noteworthy, from the opening stage hold-up (complete with exploding horse) to the climactic gun battle/chase through the streets of Contention. The problem is that these have a comic book, Spaghetti western feel that sits a little uncomfortably with the dour tone of the rest of the picture.

I know Russell Crowe is a fine actor but when I compare his Ben Wade to that of Glenn Ford’s he comes off second best; there’s just not enough charm and too much of his natural oafishness showing through. I also prefer Van Heflin’s Dan Evans to that of Christian Bale but I don’t mean that as a criticism of the latter’s acting skill, rather I would put it down to the writing of the part. Ben Foster certainly outscores Richard Jaeckel as Wade’s henchman Charlie Prince; the role is greatly expanded in the remake and Foster really sinks his teeth into it. I also want to mention Peter Fonda, whose grizzled bounty hunter was one of the best things about the 2007 movie. How can you not admire a man who’s back in the saddle mere hours after being gut-shot and then operated on by a vet – what a guy!

So, I think I can safely say that my preference is for the 1957 3:10 to Yuma. However, people who come upon the remake with no knowledge of or exposure to the original may find it entertaining enough. Sure it’s chock full of implausibilities and boasts an outrageous ending but even I was willing to take these in my stride at first. Watching them consecutively as I did will only throw all those negatives into even sharper relief.