Note: This review contains some mild spoilers.
Gay villains are nothing new in American movies. Indeed, for decades that was the only sort of gay character that showed up with any regularity in mainstream films. Sure, those characters were not always explicitly stated to be gay – and certainly never allowed to be in a healthy same-sex relationship – but from their limp wrists to their swishy walks to their ogling of the very heterosexual hero after whom they secretly lusted, these characters were definitely intended to be perceived as gay.
The villains weren’t there as a nod to the gay community or to add diversity, of course. They were coded gay to heighten their wickedness and make it that much more satisfying for straight audiences when they met their usually violent death at the hands of the hero. After all, as Zack Snyder, director of 300, said about his movie’s version of the villainous god-king Xerxes, “'What's more scary to a 20-year-old boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?''
The new film 3:10 to Yuma delivers yet another coded gay villain to add to the already crowded pantheon. A remake of the 1957 film starring Glenn Ford, Russell Crowe plays the role of outlaw Ben Wade. Christian Bale co-stars as Dan Evans, the down on his luck Civil War veteran desperate enough to try to bring Wade to justice despite the near certainty he’ll die trying. And Ben Foster stars as Charlie Prince, Wade’s villainous henchman and second in command who oozes gay subtext.
To be perfectly clear, Foster’s part is actually rather small, so don’t expect GLAAD to issue a press release taking director James Mangold to task for denigrating the gay community. That being said, there is also no mistaking that Foster’s character is indeed coded as gay and is done so to make him even more unsettling to filmgoers since being a murderous sociopath apparently isn't bad enough.
When we first see Charlie Prince, he is astride his horse, one hand draped delicately over the other with the limpest wrist this side of the Mississippi river. He is by far the nattiest dresser in the entire cast, and if that isn’t mascara he’s wearing when we first meet him then I’m Buffalo Bill.
Foster’s casting tells us a great deal about what Mangold intended for the character. He is a slight man, probably best known as Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand and as Russell, Claire’s sexually ambiguous boyfriend in Six Feet Under. Macho isn’t a word likely to often be used in describing Foster.
Within the first five minutes of Prince’s appearance onscreen, one character refers to him as “missy” and “Charlie Princess,” a nickname usually not uttered to his face, but apparently widely used behind his back. Naturally, Prince is utterly ruthless, killing anyone who gets in his way, and showing no emotion at all – not unless he’s interacting with Ben Wade, who clearly makes Charlie swoon.
During a scene in a saloon, Prince accompanies Wade as he chats up Emmy (Vinessa Shaw), a barkeep whom he quickly beds. (After all, it wouldn’t do to have anyone suspecting that the very heterosexual Wade returns Prince’s feelings.) As Wade pitches woo at Emmy, Prince refuses to even look at her, except once to give her a look that clearly wouldn’t bode well for her long-term prospects if the movie included any real parts for women. Fortunately for Emmy, after bedding Wade, she vanishes.
Shortly thereafter, Wade is captured and Christian Bale’s Evans signs up to help convey Wade to the town of Contention where he’ll be put on board the 3:10 to Yuma, a prison train. Prince pretty much disappears from the middle part of the film, except for long shots that show him glowering menacingly at Wade’s captors or ruthlessly shooting or burning to death anyone standing between him and his beloved Ben Wade.
During this section of the film, Wade and Evans get to know each other and even bond, although without any of that icky homoerotic subtext. Rather, this is two men getting to know and, to a certain extent, respect each other as real men ought to do. Crowe’s outlaw especially comes to admire this determined family man trying to bring him to justice in order to keep safe his wife and two sons back on the farm. In fact, Wade admires Evans so much that he ends up helping him complete his quest.
The film’s climax is appropriately dire, with bullets flying every which way. Of course, the odds against Evans' succeeding seem impossibly high, and I won’t give away the ending (except to say that it is improbable at best), but of course Charlie Prince does figure prominently.
He arrives at the very end, riding in to rescue Wade from Evans’ heterosexual clutches. Naturally, that involves putting a bullet into Evans, an act that so infuriates Wade that he in turn pumps Prince full of bullets himself. Shocked at the actions of the man he adores, the dying Prince looks like nothing so much as a dog being put down by his master.
As Wade watches Prince die, I couldn’t shake the feeling that thanks to the influence of Evans, he now sees Prince clearly for the first time. It is only then that he understands what friendship between two men should be like and it doesn’t involve what Prince yearned for. He may have been an outlaw and a murderer, but make no mistake – that isn’t the reason Prince has to die at the end of the film.
What surprised most of all is that the homophobic subtext isn't a leftover relic from the original 3:10 that Mangold felt compelled to include. That would've been bad enough, but instead almost all of the coded gay aspects in the remake were introduced by either Mangold or the film's assorted screenwriters.
In the original movie, Prince is played by character actor Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen, Starman). At no point is his character called “missy” or referred to as "Charlie Princess". In the saloon scene where Wade flirts with Emmy, Prince also spends time talking with her. Nor is it made to seem that Prince is pining over his boss, jealous over the attention he gives to others. At one point, he even discusses his having a wife.
One thing does remain the same in both movies: Prince dies in each, but in the 1957 version it’s at the hands of Evans, not Wade. Thus there is no message sent that Prince is being punished for his “queer” transgressions against Wade (which aren't even present).
Filmmakers understandably desire to add their own imprint and a more modern sensibility when remaking an old film. Hence this version’s more graphic violence, changed characteristics and updated motivations to heighten the tension. But it’s truly a shame that Mangold felt it necessary to fall back on such tired clichés of gay people when it came to his villain. That’s one train that should no longer even leave the station.