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3:10 to Baghdad
October 1, 2007

A slew of films will be hitting theaters this fall that address in one fashion or another the debacle in Iraq, or the war on terrorism more generally. Interestingly, it may be a humble western that does so most subversively, precisely because it's politics are decidedly ambiguous.

After World War II, a handful of Italian and German directors created brutally searching films, hoping to probe their national identities in the aftermath of fascist takeover and unthinkable devastation. A sense of national shame permeated both countries, and filmmakers believed that only through a piercing, honest self-examination could they somehow reclaim or reconstruct what it meant to be an honorable German, a principled Italian.

The same thing happened here in the waning years of the Vietnam conflict. Though we arguably didn't lose the war, there was an overriding sense that we had lost something, and a need simultaneously to look within and look around us at our fellow Americans propelled a number of films, such as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Catch 22, Midnight Cowboy, King of Marvin Gardens, and dozens of others.

Even films like The Godfather, Chinatown, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Dog Day Afternoon, in the great tradition of the American crime story, used the trappings of the gangster saga, the detective caper, and noir to explore the individual at desperate odds with his culture, his time, and American power.

If the previews are any indication, this autumn's upcoming Iraq films will take on these same thematic issues, exploring a sense of national disbelief, shame, and betrayal. But they will be hard-tasked to do so any more compellingly than 3:10 to Yuma, which perhaps is as it should be. The western is one of the truly American art forms, and why shouldn't it be able to ask the hard, galling questions of who we are, and who we may become?

Baldly put, 3:10 to Yuma concerns honor, and the storyline pits a charming killer with few pretensions to virtue against a rancher and Civil War casualty brutalized by full-throated greed. Haplessly facing eviction—the railroad will pay his landlord handsomely for his land—the rancher seems fatally weak to his oldest boy. To earn money to save his ranch, and to regain his son's esteem, the rancher agrees to transport the killer to the eponymous train that will carry him to prison.

Though the film's no simple allegory, it's hard not to draw out parallels, regardless of your political inclinations. Based on a story by Elmore Leonard dating from the late '50s, the screenwriters have made numerous updates that seem too apt to be haphazard.

For the left, the hero's a classic soldier-victim, disfigured physically and scarred psychologically, a former member of the Massachusetts Militia (read: National Guard) who was called up for active duty when the war started going south, as it were.

The railroad's ominous presence resonates eerily with that of Halliburton and other contractors "reconstructing" Iraq (and the pitiable condition of the Chinese workers echoes that of foreign nationals from the Philippines, El Salvador, and elsewhere, conscripts in the "poverty draft" that drew them from their home countries to the desert). And the sadistic, Bible-touting Pinkerton is an apt stand-in for Blackwater USA, an analogy brought home all the more forcibly by recent events.

But there's plenty of sop for the right as well. The killer's band of outcasts includes stand-ins from the current culture wars—not just an Apache ("Indian Country" being the prevailing military metaphor for Third World combat zones worldwide), but a Mexican sharpshooter (for the anti-immigrant crowd), even a vaguely gay second-in-command. These are definitely the kind of home-grown terrorists red state America can't help but hate.

More importantly, the crucial action driving the plot—the decision to bring the killer to trial—reveals itself to be a pointless blunder. Why not just string up the villain now and be done with it?

Echoes of torture, rendition, and other compromises of what we once considered intrinsic American values, now considered "quaint" in some quarters, spring to mind. And the fact it's the prissy, cowardly, amoral railroad man who insists on a trial neatly undermines any pretense that reliance on the law bespeaks virtue.

There are millions of Americans, several of them running for the Republican nomination for president, one recently nominated to become the next attorney general, who scorn the notion of trying terrorists, and more generally of using a law enforcement paradigm in the war on terror. They see that paradigm as a symptom of what went wrong prior to 9/11. Only war will do, despite the fact it has taxed our military to the breaking point, and it gives our enemies an exalted status they do not deserve. And the fact that, in 3:10 to Yuma, a corrupt shill for the railroad is the motivator for such a reliance on the courts will resonate strongly with Clinton-bashers everywhere, who see corrupt elites as a distinctly liberal phenomenon. The fact that the railroad man's plan goes so bloodily wrong only drives the point home: Trials are folly.

Meanwhile, the affable killer increasingly assumes an intriguing duality—part villain, part trickster, even co-protagonist. He doesn't merely come to understand the shamed rancher's plight, he is so moved by it he betrays his own self-interest, dramatizing how a man seemingly unredeemable simply embodies those virtues necessary in a pitiless world, where force and cunning, not law, dictate. He's only as evil as he needs to be, given the way of things. It's an old theme, older than westerns, old as heroes themselves. Ask Dick Cheney of Wyoming.

But gratefully it isn't all that pat. The point of the film, after all, isn't who survives—it's who makes a rightful claim to honor. And the crippled rancher, despite a heart-wrenching awareness that he is no hero, demonstrates an inspiring iron-willed decency. By doing so, he prevails, but at a tragic price.

And therein lies the timely, unsettling force of the film. Will the Iraq campaign, and the larger war on terror, reduce to that same grim choice: an honorable but tragic sacrifice on one hand, a morally tainted survival on the other? Whose blood, and how much of it, needs to be lost before we know?

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, September 30, 2007. To read that version, go here.

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