What other movie finds itself capable of conjuring to mind the Aristotelian maxim that “goodness is one, evil is manifold”?
As the reader can see clearly below, not all of my top twenty-five are “great” films. This was no cardinal ordering of the best movies ever. Many are simply relentlessly entertaining movies and nothing more. In fact, the primary criterion for my list boiled cinematic history down to scenes: these twenty-five films should have no boring scenes, wire to wire. This means that any “great” films happening to appear by accident on my list of favorites inform a special sort of greatness—being both entertaining and whatever makes for greatness. And they could in theory be grouped together into a second list comprising “top great films without a single boring scene.”
I never got around to making the second list. But at this point, with a view to my first, I could do so easily.
More importantly, I can tell you which film would sit near or at the top of that second list. Sharks with lasers, arachnid men, “special effects,” and the prurient interest aside, pretty much all that has ever interested me is morality. In that sense, the greatest film of all time may very well be James Mangold’s 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma.
Unsure (and unheeding) whether “the experts” have ever made just such a claim, I’m actually eager to stick my neck out for 3:10 to Yuma. (I don’t even think this movie even makes perennial “top conservative movie” lists, sadly.) I’m no film critic concerned about “sets” or “props” or “costumes.” But it does all these very well. Far more importantly, it accomplishes something antedating all the glittering trappings of cinema: it tells a profound moral tale. It credibly explicates the irresistible moral impulse in man to do the good, even with—especially with—the countervailing likes of an aesthetically primeval villain like Ben Wade (a role requiring Russell Crowe) on the other side making wickedness look spuriously sharp.
I’d been misreading and underestimating the moral of the tale until my most recent viewing this Christmas: formerly I’d misread the film’s message as more postmodern than that which is truly buried there. Only when I realized what the message was—a call for the person to do the right thing even unto death—did I begin to think about this film as the greatest ever. It manages to make such an unpopular moral mandate…fashionable. And realistic.
One finds the plot structure uncommonly simple, meaning the plain moral theme of the film rests on the mantle in front of the viewer’s very eye like a purloined letter. Evans (Christian Bale), whom I like to call simply “the rancher,” finds himself—as the viewer meets him in medias res—and his family in a dire situation. In the opening scene, the rancher’s creditors burn his barn over missed payments, and threaten to remove the family from their land within a month. To make matters worse, the rancher’s youngest son has tuberculosis and must live there. Against such exigency, the rancher and his sons begin to search for their scattered cattle (also an effect of the creditors’ bullying) when they come upon the famous outlaw Ben Wade, immediately after a stagecoach robbery. Through happenstance, they become involved in Wade’s capture, and the rancher insinuates himself for the price of$200 into the transport posse charged with getting Wade to the prison train, running out of nearby Contention.
The task is to be infinitely dangerous because Wade’s infamous gang will surely track the posse, intercept Wade, and kill his captors if they can. The rancher agrees to take on such a task, of course, only on account of his issues with solvency.
The film’s theme of moral realism could not be instantiated nearly as starkly as it is had the crippled, desperate rancher not had every excuse to knuckle under to Wade’s sustained “buy out” proposals throughout the trek. Even the party from whom Wade stole—the “railroad man” commissioning Wade’s capture—eventually encourages the rancher, at a certain peak in the danger, to opt out and to save his own skin. “There’s no shame in it.” By the end, the accomplishment of the task has come to lie beyond even the railroad man’s expectations, because it has come to jeopardize his and the posse’s safety.
But, being a moral realist, the rancher will not relent. The Ancient Roman maxim, fiat justitia ruat caelum, (“let justice be done though the heavens fall”) finds itself as the rancher’s unarticulated motto and the film’s theme. Do the right thing regardless of the consequences. In short, this film condemns American pragmatism, the crippling sickness of the 21st Century American Republic, which strikes directly against the rancher’s maxim. Pragmatism urges the moral actor to be moral…until the moment it grows inconvenient or unsafe…and then, to do whatever’s expedient.
Yet, there are worse things than death, the rancher reminds us all. He is morally excellent.
Midnightly and grinning Ben Wade sets out at the trek’s start to convert the simple rancher Evans to his Hobbesian-Nietzschean worldview of bellum omnium contra omnes (“the war of all against all”)—a new iteration of it, with a bedevilingly genteel spin, which seems to entrance every other character who confronts Wade. But in a satisfying turn, the rancher winds up converting Wade to the irresistible force of moral right. He does so with precious few words, but action aplenty. In fact, the only character more fascinating or compelling than the Professor Woland–like Ben Wade turns out to be the morally simple, unbuyable rancher.
What intrepid art: for my ilk, who never took a single genuine interest in anything besides morality—life and death—this is the highest cinematic expression of the good. Wickedness need not be cartoonishly ugly or nasty: it is serpentine. Often, it is cultivated, genteel, and almost likable. And such dissimulation turns out to be powerfully compelling.
Postmodernism gets off board there, and glorifies characters like Wade in their fallenness, so long as it exudes style. But goodness is more potent still: the rancher is the more irresistible force. What other movie finds itself capable of conjuring to mind the Aristotelian maxim that “goodness is one, evil is manifold”?
Many slung-together turns of phrase appearing in the film might well be said to constitute Wade’s diabolical motto. But, really, it is just that “basically, everyone wants to live,” an expression of his Hobbesian pragmatism: survival is more real than moral norms. The fact that everyone wants to live has long been the outlaw’s fulsome leverage. On Wade’s view, there are only two semi-rivalrous conceptions of ethics: his own offensive (Hobbesian) pragmatism and that of the defensive, cowardly pragmatism by the petit bourgeois. You might parse these into strong pragmatism and weak pragmatism. But other times, Wade mentions the tactics of the supposedly law-abiding “Pinkertons” against the Apache (yes, I know, Hollywood couldn’t resist) and even the violent actions of the rancher’s creditors, the “railroad men.” In those instances, Wade seems more mindful of the countervailing inference that all forms of pragmatism are in the last analysis just different flavors of the same consequentialism, insofar as they are repudiations of moral right.
Common, weak men want the rule of law honored—and Wade imprisoned—as long as they have none of their own skin in the game. But when the danger grows, they beg out of the imposition of Western ethics, just as Wade and the outlaws have done far earlier (only, the petit bourgeois does so with far less panache). Men like Wade stylishly create the danger through his own abandonment of conscience; such danger in turn causes less bold men of petit bourgeois ethics to abandon theirs.
Wade assumes until his conversion that there’s pretty much only competing conceptions of pragmatism—a few different styles of the same paradigm—and nothing besides.
“In the end, they’ll all leave you,” Wade correctly predicts to the rancher of the others conscripted to the posse. After the successful delivery of Wade from the hot pursuit of his murderous gang has become a longer and longer shot, the rancher sees he will be left alone to complete the task, with Wade smiling in satisfaction all the while. And Wade has been correct about one other thing also: everyone indeed wants to live. This includes the rancher, whom Wade tempts with ever increasing offers to double—then quintuple—the conscripted amount for Wade’s release. That quintupled sum would obviously allow the rancher, to whom Wade is drawn from their very first scene together, to escape with not only his life, but also with more than enough money to vastly improve his family’s ailing quality of life.
But, as the plot draws near to its climax (this is the most I’ll say) and the danger crescendos in the final thirty minutes, waiting in the little hotel room in Contention until the train (and Wade’s gang) arrives, the rancher turns Wade down with finality, telling him to be quiet. Even in a desperate situation, the rancher will not relent. Over the next fifteen minutes, Wade is forced to confront a brand new moral idea which he’d dismissed his entire life: moral realism. Morals become ‘realistic’ the moment that someone is willing to trade his life for their form. The willing forfeiture of the moralist’s life is a sine qua non in the overcoming of pragmatism.
Seven or eight minutes later, Wade suffers one final retreat into disbelief of the rancher’s genuine moral realism, hoping that the rancher’s fidelity to right action will last only as long as his son looks on.
But the rancher proves this wrong as well. He’s not merely playing moralistic shadows on the cave wall. He’s playing for keeps. He continues the fatal errand even outside of the lionizing scrutiny of his son, against the longest odds imaginable: the transport posse now numbers only one (him!). At that moment, Wade realizes that goodness is more powerful than even death and his moral conversion is perfected.
One final dimension of the film bears mention. Reminiscent of Nietzsche’s self-contradictory affinity for Christ, Wade is drawn to the rancher’s goodness all along, if unwittingly. But he admits it only with a firm caveat, stipulating that the rancher’s conscience is his “least favorite” part of him. It turns out, the greater share of Wade’s misunderstanding of the good has lain in his mischaracterization of morality as being purely wrought of the Apollonian, ordered stuff he associates with lack of imagination, weakness, and convention. Conversely, 3:10 to Yuma is a tale about Wade’s burgeoning recognition of the wild, robust, creative, and Dionysian aspect of the good, represented by the rancher’s “reckless” forfeiture of his own life in the name of justice. It is precisely this Dionysian aspect of moral goodness that all of the morally mediocre society—the petit bourgeois together with Wade—has failed to apprise. Moral goodness is not merely politeness at tea time. It is divinely exacting stuff, bearing watermarks of Apollonian order and Dionysian chaos together.
The moral good, in fact, may require from us our own lives as forfeit this very night. Conservatives should damn well remember it.
Even the baroque musical theme played on the DVD’s menu screen sounds like the soundtrack to good confronting evil, or to virtuous heroism standing American pragmatism on its head. Whereas the latter pseudo-philosophy usually adumbrates a conception of morality whereby threat of death constitutes an acceptable boundary at which point morals may be “teleologically suspended”—abandonment for the sake of survival—the rancher reminds a viewer that an honorable death is one of the most important trappings of the good life. Even more important to 3:10’s status as a victory for moral realism: in its single most important line, the rancher characterizes honor—and dismisses pragmatism—as the more realistic ontological expression of man’s vocation: “I’m seeing the world the way it is,” he tells Wade and the railroad man in the penultimate scene. Usually that line is employed by cowards justifying their abandonment of ideals in the face of death (or less) to describe the “prudence” of selling out. But not today.
Anyway, enough prolix sermonizing about an amazing work of art which will better each of its viewers (as long as my descriptions have not bored the reader out of viewing it!). Get to watching it. May it stir your soul as it does mine.
I leave you with my favorite twenty-five films, as promised:
25) The Karate Kid (1984)
24) Braveheart (1995)
23) Rudy (1993)
22) The Wedding Crashers (2005)
21) The Passion of the Christ (2004)
20) The Sandlot (1993)
19) The Burbs (1989)
18) Signs (2002)
17) Stepbrothers (2008)
16) Little Women (1994)
15) O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
14) Gran Torino (2008)
13) Disturbia (2007)
12) Keeping the Faith (2000)
11) City Slickers (1991)
10) The Two Towers (2002)
9) Back to the Future (1985)
8) The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
7) Tombstone (1993)
6) 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
5) Rocky (1976)
4) Gladiator (2000)
3) The Thin Red Line (1998)
2) The Return of the King (2003)
1) The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
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The featured image is courtesy of IMDB.