Saturday, September 5, 2009

Western Heroes or, What I Learned from Russell Crowe

In planning this blog today, all I could think about were the two main characters in the movie 3:10 To Yuma, starring my favorite actors, Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. I have seen this film probably 10 times, since DH also loves it, though for different reasons. At first, I watched it because of the Western background, costuming, storyline, drama, etc...but, by the 7th time, I watched it as a historical romance author and saw something that helped me with my own writing.

The basic plot is: "a small-time rancher agrees to hold a captured outlaw who's awaiting a train to go to court in Yuma. A battle of wills ensues as the outlaw tries to psych out the rancher." This plotline made me think it would just be a shoot-em-up good guy/bad guy type of story. Ho-hum. Never heard one of those before!

In the story, Dan (Bale) is a struggling rancher about to lose the farm when the opportunity arises to ride with a posse who've captured murderer Ben (Crowe). Dan asks for $200 for his trouble; it will be enough money to save the ranch and buy medicine for his sickly son. Simple black hat/white hat theme. Like the good guy, cheer when the baddie is caught. As the story progresses, however, these two characters show deeper, different sides that makes this more a study of characterization and GMC, than a showcase for two hunky actors who make sweaty brows and scowling eyes look good.

Dan is not just a struggling rancher. He's a Civil War veteran and his sons consider him a great war hero. The family story is that he lost his leg in battle. At the end of the film, he confesses to Ben that one of his own men shot it off accidentally, but he was too ashamed to admit that to his sons, who admire him. Through added digs by Ben and others, it's also hinted that Dan feels like less of a man with his frustrated wife, who resents that he cannot make the ranch work. His older son thinks him a coward when he won't shoot one of the bad guys. With just a few insights, the story becomes more an internal battle in each man than a simple chase story.

Ben, the heartless killer, is a lover of Shakespeare and quite the artist. He also shows a knack for reading people and becomes more and more sympathetic toward Dan and his plight. When he finds out that Dan needs the money his capture will bring, Ben is determined to make sure he is on the train (taking him to Yuma Prison where he will be hanged). But his gang has other plans, and will kill everyone in their path to release Ben. One of my favorite scenes is toward the end, when the worst of his gang fatally shoots Dan. Without hesitation, Ben kills the rest of his men, then gets on the waiting train. Dan's son leans down and whispers, "He got on the train." And Dan smiles, knowing that Ben is the unlikely reason his family and ranch will go on without him.

That two unlikely heroes can become friends despite their backgrounds and occupations made me want to explore their characters even more. I studied how their interractions brought them closer; the private secrets they reveal to each other. Secrets their own friends and families don't know. Dan speaks of the war and his shame while Ben reveals he once read the Bible cover to cover when his mother abandoned him, as a child, at a train station. These revelations, simple at first, reveal more of the man beneath the label. Dan just doesn't need the money - he wants to redeem himself in his wife's and sons' eyes. And Ben admits he can always escape again from Yuma, even though he is risking his life by getting on the train. There is still the chance he will be hanged, but he wants Dan's family to go on.

There were so many levels to this story that sets it apart from most. It reminded me that our characters are not one- or two-sided, but multi-faceted, like real people. Even though the men started out as good guy/bad guy, by the end of the movie they were very similar - both had positive and negative traits, both were sympathetic, and both were capable of loyalty and honor.

And both could scowl a hole through the darkest cloud any time!


Loretta C. Rogers said...

I enjoyed the newer version of 3:10 to Yuma than the orginal version with Glen Ford. If you compared the two movies, the pacing was much better in the newer version, and while Russell Crowe's character had some redeeming factors, in the original version the Glen Ford character was bad to the bone. Writers can learn valuable lessons from watching movies. I enjoyed the post, Anna.

Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Anna, great blog. I happened to see both versions at about the same time, and I agree with Loretta. Russell Crowe actually was a sympathetic character. But the older version is definitely worth one's time.