I’m a sucker for old Westerns, usually of the John Wayne and John Ford variety, but this story proves timeless in both its classic and current incarnations.
This film serves as a great example of the old black and white, sweepingly cinematic, character driven westerns that were so popular in the early to mid 1900’s. Dan (Van Heflin), a rancher down on his luck because of a draught, agrees to escort infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) onto the train headed to Yuma prison while keeping one step ahead of Wade’s gang and their attempts to free Ben. Ford brings to life Ben Wade with an intense performance that calls to mind the toughness of most Western villains, but with the sympathy of the typical cowboy hero. Every scene between Dan and Ben is filled with tension, as the two characters begrudgingly achieve a mutual respect and recognize their own characteristics and tendencies in the other. The film accomplishes the difficult task of getting its audience to root for both sides. We want Dan to gain back the respect he deserves from his family, and get the money to support his ranch, but we also want Ben to escape with his gang, as it is in his nature to be an outlaw. The world would have no heroes if there were no villains out there like Ben Wade.
In this updated version, we get a lot more characters and sub plots to deal with, but the story is mostly untouched and a lot of the dialogue remains fully intact. Dan’s family is fleshed out more, as well as Wade’s gang and those who accompany Dan and Ben as they head to Contention. It’s reassuring to see that today’s modern actors can still be very convincing cowboys. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe (as Dan and Ben, respectively) both give wonderful performances that play off each other well, however, the most notable performance is given by Ben Foster as Charlie, Wade’s second in command. The character has evolved from the original, envious Charlie into Charlie Prince, a psychopathic murderer who would go to the ends of the earth for his boss. Even with most of the original dialogue, the story does not seem outdated and still stands as a riveting tale. The new film takes the liberties that come with today’s “R” rating, offering a lot of profanity and violence that would not have passed in 1957. It’s more realistic, however I often found myself wondering if the phrase “a**hole” was around back in the 1800’s. While this version is longer, it cuts back on the one on one scenes between Ben and Dan and replaces the bulk of their battle of wits with those of guns. This is a shame, as Bale and Crowe’s performances excel here, however today’s audiences will be more satisfied with the action, gun play, and suspense that is in its place.
Ben Wade’s character. In the original he is sympathetic from the beginning, and only kills when he has to. In the new film, he is rotten through and through, and allows his gang to kill often, though their victims are mostly railroad workers so they presumably kill with purpose. Also, the ending. Without giving away any spoilers, when I saw the original I figured they would have to change things up a bit as today’s audiences may see it as anticlimactic, and it turns out I was right. I think many will be surprised leaving the theater, but I can understand how the new ending is more interesting for today’s audiences.
Back in 1957, if there was one thing that Westerns didn’t have it was disrespectful children. The sons and daughters were always innocent, sweet, and upstanding, even when wronged by their parents. In today’s society, such is not the case. In the 2007 film, Dan’s son William is 14, and does exactly what you would expect from a 14 year old. He disrespects and sasses his father, secretly admires the outlaw Ben Wade, and sneaks out to follow the gang taking Ben to Contention. His character has a great arc, though, and really works to make Dan a more sympathetic character. Not only is he now risking his own life, but his son’s as well, and is working harder to earn his respect. There are many new characters to accompany Dan and Ben on the journey, from the pig headed lackey Tucker to the bounty hunter McElroy and the vet, Doc Potter. Also, the 1957 film is 90 minutes long, while the 2007 version stands at 120. The extra 30 minutes is mainly spent on the journey in between Dan’s ranch and Contention, adding what audiences expect from a western: camp fires, sleeping under the stars, shootouts with Indians, and narrow escapes on horses. We also see what happens to the decoy stagecoach and Wade attempts to give Dan and the boys the slip a lot.
Both movies are beautifully made with wonderful performances. The update pays the homage that the original deserves, and beefs it up with more characters, action, and violence. While adding 30 minutes to the runtime makes the 2007 film a tad on the lengthy side, it remains faster paced than the original and ensures that even those who are not fans of the original, slower paced Westerns, will still enjoy this film by adding action and Western clichés.