Morality, courage, honor and family may be the themes explored in the riveting, reimagined “3:10 to Yuma,” but for Peter Fonda, the shoot-’em-up extravaganza by director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) was a reminder of how well Westerns can illuminate real-life political dramas.
“The best way to discuss what’s going on right now is through a Western — and in the past tense,” Fonda says. “If you talk in the ‘right now,’ you’re going to force people to go one way or another in an ideology they may not like, but in a Western, that idiom gives you the chance to encompass all sides of the political spectrum.”
Done well, it also gives audiences a thrill ride, something Mangold pulls off in the movie, which opens next week. The director was only 17 when he first viewed the original 1957 film, which chronicled a down-on-his-luck rancher who volunteers to escort brutal outlaw Dan Wade to a prison-bound train. For the redux, Mangold added more scenes and characters — Fonda’s bounty hunter Byron McElroy in particular — and cast Russell Crowe as the rogue opposite Christian Bale.
Like Fonda, Mangold views Westerns as opportunities to explore deeper social issues.
“Westerns were really rich philosophically,” he says of the genre. “They weren’t shallow films. There were dark heroes, whether it was John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’ or Alan Ladd in ‘Shane’ — they were killers struggling with redemption; struggling with the shadows of darkness. Somehow this genre allowed Hollywood to explore some really rich themes that they almost couldn’t in any other genre.”
For Fonda, who nabbed Oscar noms for 1969’s “Easy Rider” and “Ulee’s Gold” in 1997, it was a chance to continue expanding creative horizons.
“I do not like the word ‘retirement,’” he says. “There’s too much to do. We’re robbing ourselves if the ultimate goal is retirement. That’s what happening in our country.”
But that’s not the case for Fonda, whose family lineage includes his father, the late actor Henry Fonda; sister Jane; and daughter Bridget.
“After graduating high school, my daughter and I were walking arm and arm,” Fonda reflects, ‘and she said, ‘Dad, I want to be an actor.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you ever say that again. You want to act. It’s a verb, not a noun.’”
Although he admits to being deep and emotional, Fonda says he can also relate to the hard-hitting character he portrays in “3:10.”
“I just don’t accept anybody else’s authority,” Fonda says. “And now that I’ve watched this thing called the Patriot Act come and take away the Fourth Amendment, it’s like ‘Wow, give me a gun.’”
“I’m not suggesting to kill anybody,” he cautions. “I’m not that kind of an American. You have to pay attention to the law of the land. I just don’t pay attention to this quasi-authority that the government’s put out on us. The character I play is that type of person.”