"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That's what the editor of the Shinbone Sun says at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford's classic 1962 examination of America's national mythology. Earlier in the movie, the mild-mannered attorney Ransom Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, appears to gun down the outlaw Liberty Valance. Stoddard's renown after the shooting earns him fame and political fortune. Only later does Stoddard learn that his friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) had actually killed the gunslinging bully. Both Stoddard and Doniphon are haunted by his undeserved acclaim, but no one wants to know the truth.
Director James Mangold crafts a roughly similar scenario in his remake of Delmer Daves' 1957 Western 3:10 to Yuma: An ineffectual Arizona farmer named Dan Evans (Christian Bale) looks to do the right thing—and redeem himself in the eyes of his family—by escorting the cold-blooded train robber Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) across the desert to the train that will take Wade to prison. Evans gets his redemption, but it's as empty as Ransom Stoddard's heroism. The difference is that Ford didn't celebrate the triumph of legend over fact in Liberty Valance; he simply acknowledged it with a disillusioned sigh. In 3:10 to Yuma, it's the legend that counts. Mangold makes sham heroics seem as good as the real thing.
As Evans, a one-legged Union veteran beset by drought, debt and the Pacific Southern Railroad, Bale translates his brooding, sullen good looks into a convincing portrait of downtrodden resignation. Crowe, however, dominates the movie with old-fashioned star power. Crowe plays Wade as a smoldering combination of avenging angel (he quotes the Old Testament) and Hannibal Lecter (he kills a man with a fork but also demonstrates an artistic sensibility, both while wearing handcuffs). Wade relishes the challenge of captivity, playing sly psychological games with his holders, particularly Evans. Wade responds to Evans' intelligence but knows that the farmer is in over his head, and over the course of the movie's first 90 minutes the pair develop a muted, Stockholm Syndrome kind of bond.
Evans’ initial motivation for joining the posse that will transport Wade to the prison train is an offer of $200, just enough money for him to keep his farm going until spring. By the time the ramshackle troupe reaches the town where they'll meet the train, though, Wade has gruesomely disposed of a ranch hand, a Pinkerton agent, and a pack of Apaches. Evans realizes that he's in it for more than cash. He can do something big—something good, something brave, but above all something heroic—by making sure Wade gets on the train. Wade recognizes Evans' shifting motivation and has his own change of heart; his restrained sympathy for the beleaguered farmer turns, abruptly and unconvincingly, into allegiance once the shooting starts. He conspires with Evans against his own gang (led by Ben Foster, whose supporting role as an unrepentant sociopath burns the screen) to get himself across town and onto the train.
All the work that's built Wade up as a classic film psychopath is dispatched in a flash of deliverance that distorts what had been a straightforward and serviceable action picture into a portentous and severely flawed parable. It's a cheap reversal of Wade's character—he's compelling precisely because he's so bad—and Mangold's not-so-subtle hint that ain't no prison train strong enough to hold Ben Wade is even cheaper. It makes Evans' sacrifice essentially meaningless, a metaphoric good deed that has no real-world consequences. It undermines two strong lead performances and Mangold's own efficient storytelling up to that point. But the director apparently likes a good legend better than a believable or satisfying ending. Like the editor in Liberty Valance, he delivers his lessons with a knowing wink