Year Released: 2007
Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, Logan Lerman, Gretchen Mol
(R, 117 min.)
"The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation." Henry David Thoreau
Though its cache of dead bodies easily earns it an R rating, this gritty classic Western is really a lean character study featuring two of our finest modern day actors, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It is a tale of violence, greed, and the strange bond that grows between two men on opposite sides of the law.
Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is clearly a man at the end of his rope. The drought has devastated his land and he is about to lose his ranch to foreclosure, but it is the reproachful looks of his older son and wife that cause him most pain. It is probably courage born of desperation that prods him to approach notorious stage robber Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) about damaging his cattle during the bloody raid that he has just witnessed.
Wade swears he has no intent to harm Evans’ cattle, takes their horses instead of their lives, and tethers them securely to a tree to be retrieved after his gang makes its getaway. When Evans again encounters Wade, who has dallied in nearby Bisbee due to the charms of a local barmaid, he asks for recompense for the time he has lost collecting his horses and rounding up the cattle spooked by the gunfire. An intrigued Wade cordially settles up and seems to bear little animosity that this encounter has slowed him down just long enough for the local law to arrest him.
Hoping to buy time to last until the spring rains, Evans volunteers to be part of an armed escort to take Wade to the 3:10 prison train to Yuma, where he will undoubtedly be hanged. The $200 paycheck is all that stands between Evans and disaster.
It’s not just Dan’s small acts of courage that intrigue Ben Wade, but he is intrigued by the man himself, almost as if a thoroughly decent human being is an unknown and fascinating phenomenon. For the audience as well, it is a bit of a shock, accustomed, as we are to the allure of evil and the cinema’s leering eye transfixed by it. In everything from Bonnie and Clyde to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from The Godfather sagas to Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen and even Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, those breaking rather than upholding the law garner the attention.
But, quite frankly, Ben Wade seems somewhat bored with the outlaw life. He would rather sketch an elusive bird than plot the details of the upcoming heist, or watch it take place from the distant hilltop rather than participate in it.
Not that Ben, an amoral manipulator, fails to charm his fellows or us. Dan’s wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) is taken aback at Ben’s soft spoken nature, and older son William is as much rapt as repulsed by his notorious ways. His second in command Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) is as devotedly loyal to Ben as he is ruthlessly lethal to any who oppose him. Having read the Bible all the way through when he was eight years old, Ben can supply chapter and verse commentary to suit any occasion, thought the larger meaning of the text he seems not to have absorbed.
As the entourage battles its way to the train, Wade saves the group from an Apache assault, but Ben proclaims that he is only saving his own skin in killing the renegades. So, too, when Dan rescues Ben from some vigilante railroad men; he claims it is only his $200 paycheck and not the man whom he is saving. But though he fights against it, Dan begins to have a begrudging respect for his prisoner, and the two exchange a few painful memories as they wait in the hotel room for the train to arrive.
But due just as certainly as the train is Ben’s gang riding to his rescue. “Sure as God’s vengeance, they’re coming,” he warns. If only the ending would have lived up to Ben’s hype, but it is full of sound and fury and signifying, I’m afraid, not too much. Alas. we must content ourselves with a film that makes it almost to the station instead of all the way there.
To fool their pursuers, the captured Ben Wade has to stay at rancher Dan’s place for one hour, and he sits down to dinner with the whole family. Not only does the ingratiating Wade manage to get Dan to cut his meat for him – his hands are unfortunately handcuffed – but he makes sure Dan cuts away the fat and the gristle. At least one critic has said the same about this lean film – no fat or gristle here.
But if you hanker for a delicious steak, I’d go somewhere other than Dan’s failing cattle ranch. Here’s a particularly good recipe for one.
I’ll add this side dish, Cattle Drive Cornbread. Its name alone sounds delicious, and the bread itself is hot, spicy, and just a little bit crunchy. And of course, it can be cooked over the campfire, even if the notorious Ben Wade gang is hot on your trail.
Cattle Drive Cornbread
- 4 cups cornmeal
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
- 1 to 2 finely chopped jalapeño peppers
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1 (16 ounce) can creamed corn
Boil a pan of water.
Mix cornmeal and vegetable oil well in a large bowl. Add just enough of the boiling water to form a dough that could be made into a ball. Add remaining ingredients except for the creamed corn. Mix to blend, then add creamed corn.
Coat the bottom of a cast iron skillet with vegetable oil. Heat over medium heat. Remove one cup of the cornbread mixture from the bowl, and add it to the skillet. Flatten out the cornbread, and cook as you would a pancake.
Recipe Source: Recipe Goldmine