February 11, 2008

3.10 to Yuma: Kant amongst the Cowboys

3.10 to Yuma was one of the last year's more interesting films- it has just come out on DVD hence my effort to review it. A revival of the Western genre which mostly consisted of morality plays about the fate of particular men in particular communities is sorely needed: the West performed for Americans as a metaphor about human nature, about what men would do in a society without laws, bound only by violence. Great Westerns from the Man from Laramie right up to Unforgiven sketched out the ways in which men would react in such times of anarchy- they sketched out the basic limits of what human nature was when the state was a distant and often powerless presence over the vast horizons of the West. Accompanied by amazing photography and great acting, those canonical Westerns turned the genre into one of the most subtle artforms produced by America and indigenous to the United States. 3.10 to Yuma fits into that tradition- though it has to be said compared with the classics it has its limitations.

The story is simple. A rancher, Dan Evans (played by Christian Bale, one of Hollywood's most versatile and adept actors) is down on his luck and lives on parched land. By pure chance at the same time as his affairs come to a crisis, a notorious bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) holds up a wagon. Wade though stays in town to seduce the local barmaid and Evans finds him and gives him to the sherrif. It is then Evans's responsibility to take Wade across country to the only train with a prison carriage- the 3.10 to Yuma- from which Wade can be transported away to be hung in Yuma. Following swiftly behind are Wade's gang, dangerous and psychopathic men, who are willing to kill and laugh as they do so. And in front is the jail at Yuma, from which Wade tells Evans near the end of the film he has escaped twice already. Evans's motivation is established early on by the reward offered to get Wade to the train- 200 dollars of American money, but as the film goes on, we begin to realise that Evans could get the reward without transporting Wade to the station. By releasing Wade or even just by protecting his fellows on the escort he could get that money- he chooses not to though. He chooses to take Wade to the train.

Its a fascinating issue. Why does he do that? Afterall there is every chance that Wade will escape quickly- furthermore there is every chance that Evans will be killed in the attempt and rather than coming back rich, will leave his wife without a husband and his sons without a father. Part of the reason you suspect is that he feels his older son will disrespect him unless he does this: unless he demonstrates his bravery and manliness in some way. Part of the reason is that he feels humiliated in his son's eyes by the presence of Wade, the kind of man who is a hero to other men and desirable to women. But that is not all: because such considerations, almost suicidal considerations, don't really work because they would not attract praise and yet there are reasons to praise Evans's conduct. He really does set his heart on something that is right- transporting a criminal to prison- even though it will bring him no benefit but death and inevitable pain.

So why is it admirable? It isn't religious- religion is referred to in the movie and yet God's presence like the government's is distant. Evans doesn't mention heaven- it doesn't perform much of a role in his motivation. The real reason that he does what he does is because he knows it is right to do what he does. He obeys the law because it is right, not because he receives advantage. In a sense he is Jobian, screaming at God that he does not receive any luck in life (indeed the rain he seeks for arrives just as, by a grim irony, he faces his final test) but he continues to do the right thing. Immanuel Kant would have recognised what he was going through- which is why I've titled this review the way I have- for Kant morality was a matter of willing a law which was universally applied irrespective of interest. The point for Kant was that morality was something that you followed especially when nothing good for you could flow from it. That is the situation that Evans finds himself in, nothing good will flow from his actions but still he continues to perform them, still he continues to get Wade to the train.

Too many reviews of the film focus on Wade: but in truth he isn't as interesting as Evans. What Evans represents is an attitude to morality and to law which is strictly anti-utilitarian. Evans simply obeys because the law is the law, morality is morality and irrespective of consequence you must continue to behave in a certain way. The film illustrates the Kantian option- and provides an argument as to why it is moral and other options are not. All other options promise a reward: and yet by the end of the film we admire none of those who use their conduct as an instrument to profit, power or heaven, its the man who knows that morality will create disaster for him but still persists in being moral that we admire. And all he has in the end is not a tangible reward, no choir of angels or earthly reward, but the admiration of the audience and our surrogate- his son.


Ashok said...

I'm stumbling this, but one reason why a lot of reviews focus on Wade is because Wade's character seems to many to be a giant plot-hole.

I agree with those many, which is why I did not write on this film - it's too shoddy plot-wise. You have to flesh Wade out by using references to other villains in other stories/films, and once you do that the themes spiral out of control.

You do a good job with the utilitarian/deontological ethics argument, but the part about praise could use some fleshing out, especially given that Evans teaches his son via honor and secures benefits for his son and family via the appeal to his good deed. He is not a thoroughly disinterested actor, and his silence about what he did during the Civil War can be said to be an "untruth" - is Kant approving of that?

You need something more in Kant, I think, to make this argument - i.e. exactly what constitutes disinterest? You're siding with duty, as Roger Scruton does in his monograph on Kant.

Trouble is, practical reason is pretty formal, and works something like this - the question is "if everyone acts as I do, is everything going to be OK?" The answer is if everyone lets a criminal off the hook, then of course nothing is OK.

But what about leaving Wade off the hook? The whole world is doing that, and seems to be in a better position for it.

This isn't the place to bash modern ethicists for not being able to read properly, so I'll stay quiet about that. All I'll suggest is that taking Wade and Evans separately is a problematic move: it means you can read nearly anything you want into them.

Gracchi said...

I see the argument.

On the praise motif- yes I agree entirely and I should have taken that a bit further and written more about it. I think there is an interesting essay to be written actually on moral behaviour as a teaching to a next generation- it seems to crop up in so many films- in a sense that's what I did in my review of Leon but I should flesh it out more.

Your other point- I need to go back and check my Kant.