In his autobiography, Arthur Miller pays tribute to Broadway theatregoers of the 1950s and 60s. Their shared frame of reference made it possible for ambitious playwrights like him to engage in a kind of theatrical shorthand. Rather than pander to the lowest common denominator, commercial playwrights could rely on a certain level of sophistication.
What was true of the Broadway audience 50 years ago was also true of moviegoers -- and it goes without saying that playwrights and filmmakers can no longer take such cultural literacy for granted. Nowhere is this more apparent than if we compare this year's remake of '3.10 to Yuma' with the 1957 original.
The first film, directed by Delmer Daves, is a classic Western. It tells the story of a beleaguered rancher (Van Heflin) who signs up for the unenviable task of escorting a dangerous outlaw (Glen Ford) to a nearby railway station. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, it's a simple parable about the importance of sticking to your principles. Over the course of the film, we come to see that the rancher is completely defined by his fidelity to a moral code -- and, ultimately, that makes him more of a man than the apparently much tougher figure of the outlaw.
The first indication that the remake won't be a patch on the original is in the opening scene in which we see the outlaw -- this time played by Russell Crowe -- sketching a bird. In the original, Glen Ford needed no such props to get it across that his character had a certain inner sensitivity. The same goes for the rancher. In the remake, the filmmakers have seen fit to give him a limp -- again, underlining one of his characteristics (his vulnerability) that Van Heflin managed to convey effortlessly in the original.
In the 1957 version, the audience's point of view is represented by the rancher's son who initially dismisses his father as a coward but changes his mind in the course of the film. In the remake, far too much is made of this, almost as if the rancher is motivated by his desire to be a good parent rather than his sense of honour -- not so much Doc Holiday as Dr Spock. Call me old-fashioned, but I think there's more to being a good man than being a good father. In the original, the rancher's desire to be a good parent was a symptom of his overall manliness; in the remake, this is all his virtue consists of.
In short, by teasing out various aspects of the story that were beneath the surface in the original, the makers of the 2007 version have robbed it of most of its power. It's not simply that they don't trust the audience to join the dots, but they've joined the wrong dots.