9 Sep 2007: Hats on to Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt: the Hollywood western rides again, but do they shoot ’em like they used to?

Westerns are not what they used to be. Young actors who weren’t even born when John Wayne died of cancer in 1979 complain of the difficulty of riding horses across vast, empty plains: ‘After a couple of days of cowboy boot camp, from my groin to my knees was the colour of pinot noir,’ says Ben Foster of his role as Russell Crowe’s sidekick in the remake of the 1957 western 3:10 to Yuma.

Luckily, Crowe is a natural. He is perfect as antihero Ben Wade; not only does he live on an Australian ranch, where he is no stranger to riding, but he also has what director James Mangold calls a ‘combination of savage rage and brilliant charm’.

The original 3:10 to Yuma was based on a short story written by a young advertising copywriter called Elmore Leonard and published in Dime Western magazine in 1953. It was made into a film starring Glenn Ford as Wade in 1957. Early westerns were allegories for American society; the hopes, anxieties, triumphs and failures of American identity were at the core of each film.

In the modern genre, the baddies may have changed, but we’re still in a black-and-white world where good must triumph over evil. Although in 3:10 to Yuma, Crowe’s unrepentant villain is actually a more attractive character than the conventional hero played by Christian Bale. Crowe’s charisma and presence ensure that he dominates the screen in a way that will remind seasoned moviegoers of Wayne.

The remake 3:10 to Yuma, released here on Friday, is part of new spate of westerns emerging from Hollywood. But Hollywood took some convincing. When Mangold began developing the film in 2002, he struggled to create a buzz of any sort. ‘The Hollywood axiom was: westerns don’t make money,’ says Peter Fonda who also stars in Yuma. ‘Well, explain to me Unforgiven, explain to me Dances With Wolves.’

Andrew Dominik is another director whose western had a rough ride: he only just managed to get The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to the Venice Film Festival last week, a year behind schedule. Starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James, his film takes a long look (160 minutes) at the biggest celebrity in America in the 1870s.

Other new westerns include September Dawn, with Jon Voight and Terence Stamp, which dramatises the massacre of around 120 settlers by Mormons in 1857 – with a love story in the middle of it – and Seraphim Falls, released earlier this month, which stars Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan as post-Civil War adversaries.

And what about Brokeback Mountain? Although the gay western is a very modern concept, Ang Lee’s masterpiece is more of a cowboy film: real westerns are violent, pacy, thrilling. The remake of 3:10 to Yuma is like The Bourne Ultimatum with horses instead of cars.

Most innovative of all these new westerns is the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel and starring Tommy Lee Jones. Set in 1980, it follows a Vietnam vet’s attempt to abscond with $2m after he stumbles across a Texas drug deal gone wrong. Written in Texas vernacular, it’s a terrifying look at the new American West, a place so fraught with violence, drugs and greed it makes the 19th-century Wild West look peaceful. John Wayne wouldn’t approve, but on the evidence of 3:10 to Yuma, Russell Crowe would feel right at home.