Fifty years ago, when the original 3:10 to Yuma starring Glenn Ford was released, it was a great film. It's still a great film, but in every way that the 2007 version of the film differs from the original, it's better.
Fifty years of filmmaking has made for major improvements. In 1957's version, the journey from Dan's ranch to Contention gets no screen time at all. None. The journey in 2007 is two and a half days and includes a bad-guy stalker, a murder, two jut-jawed standoffs, and a detour through Indian country, where Ben saves the whole group from a raid. It isn't just bullets and thunder: the tension between characters keeps ramping up.
There's also the acting. I'm amazed at how magical film acting is today. It's as if no one really understood, a half-century ago, just how well emotions can be shown in a flicker across a character's face. Close-ups in 1957 showed things, such as the wrinkles and ever-so-slightly disheveled hair of Dan's work-worn wife. Today's close-ups show that and shadow emotions too. One thing remains the same: charisma still trumps onscreen. As good as Christian Bale is in the 2007 film, Russell Crowe still commands the screen whenever he's on it.
The motives change, too. In the 2007 version, it's all about legacy through personal character. Dan the Rancher (Christian Bale) wants to show his chops to his impressionable teenage son so the son will walk the righteous path: He wants the boy to respect his beaten-down, powerless, but ethical Pa. His rival for the boy's soul is the charming Ben Wade, who holds his destiny in his own fists. Ben (Russell Crowe) gives Dan a break because he respects his inner steel.
In 1957, it's legacy through love. The person Dan wants to impress is his wife. Perhaps it's a holdover from WWII soldiers' anxiety that a sweetheart will stray. Then, a memory made for a sort of immortality.1 The 1957 film's Ben gives Dan a break because he recognizes a life he can't have: Dan has a loving wife and home, and Ben never will.
It's odd: In 1957, a stable family life was a heck of a lot easier to achieve--or, if you will, harder to avoid. Without birth control and legal abortions, it cost too much for a young woman to give sex away. Divorce actually carried a stigma then.
Now we have fewer ways to define ourselves. If you want to be distinctive, you might wear Manolo Blahnik pumps, open-toed with three-and-a-half-inch heels, like Carrie in Sex and the City. You're defining yourself as another person, or at least as part of a smaller group of other people. Granted, you may never actually meet someone like Carrie, but you're still her.
What's more, there's a far greater sense that ethical decisions are made among shades of gray: In the 2007 film's fights in the dark, you can't tell good guys from bad.
What satisfies us in 2008 is the idea that we can still define who we are as individuals--even if it means making a statement by dying for our ideals. The son will remember Dad's principled sacrifice. But in 1957, making memories required time. Audiences remembered all too well when death by violence cut memory-making short. The film reassured people that there is still time. There's a happy ending!
1In 2007, identical dialogue about Dan's wife comes across as just another way for Ben to get under Dan's skin.