James Mangold has frequently professed devotion to Delmer Daves’ 1957 Western 3:10 to Yuma — indeed, from his remake’s whipcrack title card on, you practically hear him cooing, “I’m only doing this to you because I love you so much,” between battering the original’s virtues into submission.
Yuma (written by Halstead Welles, from Elmore Leonard’s story) is sometimes designated a “chamber Western”: hand-to-mouth homesteader Dan Evans (Van Heflin in ’57; Christian Bale here) signs on to guard black-(with-shades-of-gray-)hat Ben Wade (then Glenn Ford, now Russell Crowe) in a hotel room, awaiting the titular train while withstanding Wade’s marauders and the temptations of his bribes and moral equivocations. Mangold and screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas open up: just traveling to the hotel now involves showdowns with Apaches (feathers and facepaint streaks, visible just long enough to be dispatched by The Crowe) and others.
Daves functioned by implication; scaling up the core moral dilemma, Mangold excavates subtext with dynamite. Evans, whose frontiersmanhood is challenged by holdup man Wade, gets a prosthetic foot, presumably signifying his questioned virility; Wade is handed a sketch pad and Bible quote cheat-sheet (darkly charismatic; Mephistophelean!). The repopulated supporting cast is a wax museum of horse-opera chorus members: grizzled bounty hunter; sniggering triggermanchild; bespectacled rationalist thrilling to his first act of violence; and Evans’s dime novel-devouring son, an audience surrogate and template for moral instruction in re: dad’s heroic virtue. Does Mangold think we’re all gun-crazy adolescents, or something? He’s the one who, by the climax, turns his enduring paterfamilias into a killing machine to rival his outlaw prisoner.