Western movies are an interesting bunch, if for no other reason than their inconsistency. The most obvious of these is release dates; Westerns have hit theaters with such irregularity that, save for Unforgiven, you’d be hard-pressed to name many good Westerns since the late 1980s. But a funny thing happened on the way to 2008: two Westerns released in close succession, each with big-name actors: The Assassination of Jesse James and 3:10 to Yuma. And the latter, which just hit retail on Blu-ray Disc, is easily the best Western we’ve seen in the past decade.
3:10 to Yuma tells a powerful and well-plotted story of a Civil War veteran who’s looking to save both his family farm and his sense of pride. Played by Christian Bale, this veteran finds himself in the unenviable position of escorting a murderous, train-robbing gang leader (played by Russell Crowe) so he can earn enough money to save his farm. Along the way, Bale deals with a host of family issues, wrestles with some past demons and, in the end, finds the ultimate redemption he’d sought since being injured in the Civil War. Although the conclusion requires some willing suspension of disbelief, the movie on the whole is outstanding, and its Blu-ray presentation holds up just as well.
Much like cowboys lived and died by the gun, Blu-ray movies live and die by their picture quality. And 3:10 to Yuma, in spite of some minor issues, manages to survive the 1080p showdown. The VC-1-encoded video manages to track all the on-screen action very well, even in the most fast-moving sequences, and the high-contrast outdoor scenes show incredible color depth and clarity. However, the landscape scenes at times suffer from grain, almost as if the videographer pushed the zoom lens too hard, giving it the appearance of a film photographer using 3200-speed film in a daylight setting. The opening sequences also feel a bit oversaturated, although that could have been a stylistic decision. In addition, when the movie heads indoors, where scenes rely on warmer color palettes with less contrast, a slight grain sometimes appears, albeit inconsistently. Fortunately, most of the movie takes place outside, so this latter issue seldom crops up, and the other observations are, like Westerns themselves, inconsistent enough that you’ll probably gloss over them.
Things chance with the linear PCM 7.1 audio, which is incredible across the board. The Blu-ray presentation of 3:10 to Yuma does an outstanding job balancing the highs and lows on the audio track, and the fidelity of everything, even small background noises, is remarkable. Never does the audio feel artificially augmented, and let’s just say gunshots have never sounded this good. Honestly, 3:10 to Yuma on Blu-ray has perhaps the best audio presentation we’ve experienced in the past year from a feature film.
As excellent as the movie and audio are, though, both of those pale in comparison to the wealth of AVC-encoded, 1080p bonus features. The usual suspects are of course included on the 3:10 to Yuma Blu-ray Disc, including a commentary track and a brief but surprisingly comprehensive making-of feature called Destination: Yuma (20:58), which covers everything from plotting to costume creation and special effects to bringing in 400 tons of dirt to cover an inconvenient snowfall. But starting with A Conversation with Elmore Leonard (5:24), an interview with the author of the 3:10 to Yuma book and multiple Western pulp stories and novels, it’s clear that the rest of the bonus features are going to take a big beyond “usual.” In fact, it’s safe to say these bonus features make Old-West education fun.
From Sea to Shining Sea (19:39) is the longest bonus feature, as it delves into the history and impact of the transcontinental railroad. This feature makes fantastic use of interviews with historians, not to mention historical photos, and even includes a brief history of the railroad conglomerates. Perhaps most fascinating, though, is its discussion of how the railroad not only connected commercial centers but spread culture from one coast to the next as well, primarily through minority workers’ relocation to build the railways.
Next on tap is Outlaws, Gangs and Possies (12:58), a quick documentary and history about outlaws and possies, their roots in the gold rush and Civil War, and the close connection between stage coaches and trains. About half of the feature, though, discusses the history of Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang, which in this reviewer’s opinion is about as good as you’ll get in terms of a condensed history lesson.
Perhaps that “history lesson” is what inspired the next feature, An Epic Explored (6:22), because this feature borders on academic. Essentially a high-level thesis, it explores how Western films can tackle large social issues without feeling “preachy.” This is coupled with an interactive Historical Timeline of the West, which is broken down by decade and year and shows some of the most important events in the West during that time.
Just to make sure viewers don’t feel too lectured to, the bonus features round out with more of the traditional fare. You’ve got the six-minute gun-specific special feature (The Guns of Yuma), the truly fascinating seven-minute musical feature (3:10 to Score), seven deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer. Although in their own right these are fine features, they really do pale in comparison to the excellence of the others.
Looking back at the Westerns produced in the past decade, that’s probably the best way to sum up 3:10 to Yuma, as well: they pale in comparison to this film. Sure, Westerns may not hit theaters that often, but when they do, they’re generally as forgettable as the normal, hard-working folks by whom the West was really won. 3:10 to Yuma not only tells the story of one such hard-working farmer, but it does so well, it does so artfully, and it does so with more than enough bonus-feature material to complete the picture. 3:10 to Yuma is truly one of the great Westerns, and it’s one of the great Blu-ray Discs as well.
- Score: 9
— Jonas Allen