To look closely at daguerreotypes of people who traveled into the West during the mid-1800s is fascinating. Who were these people? Many appear a bit disheveled, their clothes ill-fitting, the women often tightly laced in coal black high-necked dresses. Few smile.




What possessed them to leave hearth and kin for the unknown, to live in towns and on farms and ranches far beyond the reach of those amenities already common in the East? These photographs always seem a bit obscure, as if their posed formality could never convey the grinding hardship or sheer terror they must have endured.




Clearly, the West has offered a sturdy template for literature and film wherein morality plays are constructed, inspired by the solitary individual &

rugged, straight-backed, hard as mahogany, who refuses to bend when confronted by the corrupting influences of civilization, meaning the small settlement towns that dotted the landscape.




That was exactly the theme that was mined in the underrated film, "Open Range," a narrative that focused on two men who were aware of the passing of what was called "free grazing," meaning a time when they, like so many others before them, could push their herds across wide expanses of range without worry of fences or restrictions. A nicely fashioned metaphor, to be sure. These were men who only entered town briefly, and only out of necessity, and when they did, were too often confronted by the corruption which simmered in such "civilized" places.




The tension between life on the loose, and the constraints of city life has been a wonderful adjunct theme running through so many of these remarkable stories.




"3:10 to Yuma," based on the novel by Elmore Leonard (when he was still writing westerns), sets up a wonderfully balanced tale of the struggling rancher, Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who has been battered by life &

he lost a leg in the Civil War &

and by circumstances, as he struggles to keep his small ranch afloat while he supports his wife and two sons. The banker who holds the note to his property is ready to do whatever is necessary to force him into foreclosure so that the property can be sold to the railroad.




Desperate, out of options, Evans hires on to help transport the lethal stage coach robber and hardened killer, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), to the town of Contention and put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma, where he will stand trial.




And so begins a harrowing journey that will test both men, pitting them against one another and, in the end, against themselves. Good vs. evil, temptation, compromise, and that crossover moment when the man in the black hat, Wade, finds a form of redemption through one singular act, indicating a glimmer of goodness long suppressed. He's not the complete sociopath, or so we want to believe.




Wade also represents that interesting duality so often displayed in films of this ilk: the outlaw, confirmed rogue, who lives on the frayed edges of society, unrestrained by laws and the domesticating influences of the ties that bind. It's an archetype that resonates with the American psyche.




In the classic film "The Searchers" there's a moment when John Wayne is framed in the doorway of a prairie farm house, unable to step inside, and so turns away, condemned to a solitary life, a man apart. Recall the two characters in "Easy Rider," a contemporary western, featuring two men roaring down the highway, and Peter Fonda, chopper sage, saying, "Freedom, man. That's what it's all about."




Dan Evans' life is about many things, but it's not about freedom. His failed struggle to make his ranch work has brought unsettling questions to the eyes of his oldest son and his wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol), both wondering about his courage and tenacity.




In a poignant scene, seated around a dinner table, Alice is gradually captivated (as is the son) by this outlaw who seems simultaneously dangerous and irresistibly charming. There's something about that moment that speaks to the counterintuitive idea that women are attracted to men whom they know will never yield, never be reliable, will always inhabit a precipice that can't be shared. He's a man, more myth than reality, that Evans can never compete with as long as he possesses a conscience and an abiding sense of duty.




"Yuma" is a compelling western, wonderfully filmed and well acted, with Bale and Crowe giving excellent performances. As a morality play, in the guise of a western, it doesn't get any better than this film. Hopefully, this movie is a precursor to future westerns, equally intelligent and probing. We'll see.