Halsted Welles catches '3:10 to Yuma,' again

Halsted Welles catches '3:10 to Yuma,' again
Christian Bale is hired to transport a criminal. (Richard Foreman / Lionsgate)
To a screenwriter, time can feel like either a bullet train speeding toward deadlines or a long ride through a barren expanse of desert. When the western remake "3:10 to Yuma" chugs into theaters in two weeks, its screenplay credits will include a name -- Halsted Welles -- that has spent half a century riding its crooked rails.

A prolific television writer in the '50s and '60s ("Suspense," "Bonanza," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"), Welles took an Elmore Leonard short story and turned it into the original 1957 oater about a down-on-his-luck rancher named Dan Evans who takes a thankless job escorting a violent but charming criminal named Ben Wade to a nearby train that will take him to prison -- all while outrunning the outlaw's vicious gang. Though Welles, who the Writers Guild's records show is dead, didn't actively participate in the writing of the screenplay for the remake, his highly regarded work is amply represented in the final product, which was shaped and augmented by a small posse of contemporary writers.

"Yuma" was a childhood favorite of "Walk the Line" director James Mangold, and he had long wanted to do his own version of the taut western. (Check out the film's thematic and structural echoes in Mangold's 1997 drama "Cop Land," which he wrote and directed.) In early 2003, Mangold and screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas ("2 Fast 2 Furious," "Catch That Kid") sold the remake pitch to Columbia Pictures.

After Brandt and Haas completed several drafts, Mangold hired Stuart Beattie ("Collateral") to work on the script, which ultimately attracted the attention of Tom Cruise for the fearsome Wade. When Cruise later jumped from the train, Russell Crowe immediately climbed aboard, only to have Columbia decline to greenlight the film. Relativity Media eventually stepped up with Lionsgate to finance it last fall with Crowe and Christian Bale in the leads.

In updating a script that they admired, Brandt, Haas, Beattie and Mangold carefully considered everything from the title to the last frames, making some substantive additions to Welles' narrative while leaving other moments untouched.

"Styles have changed since then, but the dialogue and the characters and the back and forth between them was awesome, so we didn't want to change some of that," Haas said. "There's no reason to mess with something that good, so we just tried to add a chapter and looked to improve on certain areas. But we're such big fans of the original, it was like, 'Don't screw it up.' "

Brandt and Haas originally moved the story from Arizona to Utah to take advantage of actual railroad history and retitled it "Contention" for modern audiences. But the biggest adjustments entailed amplifying the presence and thematic weight of Evans' bitter oldest son and expanding the onscreen journey from Bisbee, where Wade is captured, to Contention City, where the 3:10 awaits. So Brandt and Haas created a deadly run-in with Indians and a sequence in a blasting camp as Evans' besieged group hustles Wade across dangerous terrain.

"That was the very first thing: 'Let's put the movie on the road,' " Haas said. "Put the town where he's gotta take him miles and miles away, and then have it parallel the train coming -- the railroad literally being built.' "

When Beattie came on, he reverted to the original title and locale, added a stark opening on the Evans farm, changed the nature of some of the second act events and made alterations to the ending that, shall we say, better reflect the brutal tenor of our post-Sept. 11 times. (Beattie, Brandt and Haas are friends and new partners in the just-announced gross-participation writers deal at Fox.)

On the whole, Mangold and his writers amped up the violence and action, provided Wade and Evans with deeper back stories and psychological interplay and added some character touches that never would have played in Hays Code-era Hollywood -- Wade's right-hand man, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), now plays like a malevolent queen, and Peter Fonda spits some rancid lines as newly invented mercenary Byron McElroy. Mangold himself came up with the name for Wade's gun -- the Hand of God -- since it has a cross embedded in its handle (it's a real, working antique of Crowe's that he was given by a prop master).

Despite all the modifications, Welles ultimately landed a screenplay credit along with Brandt and Haas. According to Writers Guild credit rules, when it comes to remakes, the original film's screenplay is not considered "source material" like a play or a book; rather, the writer with screenplay credit on the original is automatically included as the first participating writer in the credit arbitration for the updated version, which is why Welles ended up in first position on the posters (and why his estate will reap residual benefits equal to those of the other credited writers).

This is not unprecedented, though not all screenwriters are aware of the policy (it does appear in the WGA credits manual). David Seltzer, for example, had sole screenplay credit on both versions of "The Omen," despite work done by director John Moore and screenwriter Dan McDermott to modernize the remake released last year. And Dale Launer shared credit on "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" with Oscar-nominated screenwriters Paul Henning and Stanley Shapiro ("Lover Come Back"), who wrote the 1964 film it was based on, "Bedtime Story."

Whether Welles deserves screenplay credit on the new "Yuma" (and not "based on" or "story by") is open to debate. But much of his austere structure was retained in the updated film, as were many of his plot points, key details and scene setups. And some of his most distinctive lines were, justifiably, left for the actors nearly verbatim, including Wade's nasty taunt about Evans' wife: "I bet she was a real beautiful girl before she met you." Time hasn't dulled that edge one bit.

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