WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Sometimes, the Western Really Does Go Everywhere)

Captain Phillips (2013) channels 3:10 to Yuma (1957)

(WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen either film)

I’m careful about proclaiming just any old American (or Americanized) narrative a “western” (“noir” is the other catchall descriptive that gets around, often after being recognized as a subset, or extension, or consummation, of, well, westerns–these notions, like some who perpetuate them, can get tricky).

However….

In 2007, James Mangold remade 3:10 to Yuma, the classic Glenn Ford/Van Heflin western based on an Elmore Leonard short story and directed by the estimable and too-oft overlooked Delmer Daves. Mangold (a fairly estimable director himself–Walk the Line is first-rate) and his talented cast (Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, et al) made such a hash of things that it was possible to walk out of the theater thinking westerns can’t really be at the heart of everything when they aren’t even at the heart of westerns anymore.

But then Mangold’s version wasn’t really a remake, or even a re-imagining of either Leonard’s original story or Daves’ film. Whatever the intent, it ended up being a cartoon. And, no, not one of those cartoons which are rooted in westerns.

The real remake arrived in theaters a few weeks ago, disguised as Tom Hanks’ worthy (one might almost say tiresomely worthy) bid for a third Oscar, Captain Phillips.

Oh, I know Captain Phillips is based on a true story. I even have a pretty good sense that, for once, the movie may actually adhere pretty closely to the events it is based upon. But that doesn’t disprove my theory. Life wouldn’t know what to do with itself if it didn’t have art to imitate.

So once more, a decent, hard-working, put-upon family man sets off to accomplish a dangerous mission for the sake of an earnest monetary reward. Once more, he finds himself trapped in a small space, trading wits with a charismatic, psychologically adroit villain. Once more the “villain”–ruthless enough in each case to kill a member of his own criminal enterprise without a second thought*–turns out to have both an honor code and a human side that very much includes a growing soft spot for the good man. In each case, the bad man ends up on the way to prison and the good man goes home to his family. And in each case there is a strong hint that the good man has what the bad man truly wants–call it the emotional security which only home and family can provide.

To be sure there are many differences as well. There’s even a crucial twist on the basic theme–in the bobbing, claustrophobic, nodulized life-boat of Captain Phillips, the bad man has hold of the good man (which means the cavalry, here played a U.S. Navy which is never more safely anonymous and faceless than when one of them is given some screen time–Ford’s Ben Wade would be able to teach them nothing about cold-blooded efficiency) is on the way, while in the shadow-striped, still-as-death hotel room of 3:10 to Yuma, the good man has hold of the bad man, and it’s the bad man’s outlaw band (led by Richard Jaeckel at high tide, so one need not worry about facelessness or anonymity) who are riding to the rescue.

And the differences do tell us something. For instance, in 3:10, Ford and Heflin may be from opposite sides of the law, but they are from the same world. In Captain Phillips, Hanks and the mesmerizing Barkhad Abdi (playing the Somali pirate leader Muse) may as well be from different planets. (Their deepest connection, in fact, comes in the harrowing action sequence when Muse and his little band are taking over Phillips’ ship. It’s the moment when, as skilled commanders of ships in battle, they have the most in common, even if one ship is a tiny but lethal motor boat and the other a massive but vulnerable and unarmed freighter.)

What impressed me, though, is not so much a difference as a yawning chasm: namely, why 3:10 to Yuma is a movie I’ll watch as long as I have eyes and I could miss seeing Captain Phillips a second time without my life feeling in any way diminished. And why I suspect the case would never be the other way around for anybody, though many could dismiss either and many more could simply enjoy both and let it go at that.

Both movies are made with consummate skill and, honestly, that superlative sequence where Abdi’s pirates take over Hanks’ boat–done as well as an action scene can be–has no equivalent whatsoever in 3:10 to Yuma. There’s tension in the western, but not much action. In Captain Phillips the new, post-western narrative model holds sway–there’s action without much tension.

I can’t say the absence of real tension was simply because I knew the ending going in. If anything, 3:10 to Yuma, which I’ve been watching regularly for years, gets more tense every time I see it, because the more I watch it, the more I feel the weight of what’s really at stake. And, believe me, Tom Hanks emotes at the end of Captain Phillips like nobody’s business. You can feel his relief at being rescued gush out of him.

He’s very, very present.

What’s not present is a sense of something bigger than himself. Some moment that offers the equivalent of Van Heflin’s Dan Evans explaining to his wife why he can’t back down from the task of walking Ben Wade to the train station, even though the reason for his taking on the job in the first place–two hundred dollars–has long since become irrelevant.

He can’t back down because, if he did, there would be nothing left inside of him.

In Captain Phillips, Richard Phillips and Muse really are no more than ships in the night. They happened to collide–a point that is too fully realized by the utter inability of anyone but the two leads to make an impression, while Yuma is filled with faces that matter. The solid direction by Paul Greengrass, the fine performance by Hanks and the riveting one by Abdi–none of it can quite mask that fundamental absence of belonging to something that is worth belonging to.

So the events of 3:10 to Yuma’s fictional story change everyone they touch and it’s possible to imagine they would change you if they happened to you.

There’s no sense that the events of Captain Phillips actually change even the real life characters who lived it–that Richard Phillips’ future will be much altered beyond the residual effects of the inevitable book and movie contract or that Muse’s future in an American prison will be much different than the quasi-prison piracy had already put him in. And there’s no sense these events would change you either except that–much like a car accident or any other random event–you’d be happy you survived.

That’s the new triumph of civilization, what the modern non-culture can still give us at the movies and pretty much everywhere else: Survival is the new emptiness and emptiness is the new fulfillment and, heck, we should all be grateful for it.

There’s cool stuff at the multiplex.

Lucky us.

What more could we ask for?

(*NOTE–It was unclear, to me at least, whether Abdi’s Muse actually kills a rival pirate during an early scene in Captain Phillips. Since he cold-cocks him with a heavy metal object, it’s reasonable to assume he was willing to kill him, which makes the point even if he doesn’t go about it anywhere near as cold-bloodedly as Ben Wade does in 3:10 to Yuma.)

2 thoughts on “WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Sometimes, the Western Really Does Go Everywhere)

  1. You nicely summed up what I feel lacking with most post 60s-70s movies. That “emptiness” and lack of collective acknowledgment of something “bigger” at stake. It’s lacking on both sides of the screen—from the film makers and (much of) the audience. And I also agree about the “remake” of 3:10. It was a cartoon, as was this year’s The Lone Ranger. The less said about that, the better.

  2. Happily I missed The Lone Ranger!…You make a nice point about the void being on both sides. I frequently feel very, very alone in crowded theaters. There was even a couple who laughed out loud during this one when the pirates were killed very suddenly and Hanks’ face was doused in blood. Granted they weren’t the norm…I have this feeling in another generation or two they will be.

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