By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 29, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Richard Foreman

Despite the appearance this season of Jesse James, the past couple of decades have seen the Western largely vanish from theaters, with spandex-clad superheroes displacing white-hatted gunslingers in the hearts of studio executives. But James Mangold, director of the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, wasn’t willing to let the genre ride into the sunset. ”I found it tragic that it was dying,” he says. ”I thought, Wow, I can get movies made now — why don’t I wade into the West?”

Mangold had long been a fan of the 1957 film 3:10 to Yuma — the tale (adapted from an Elmore Leonard short story) of a small-time rancher (Christian Bale) who has to deliver a murderous outlaw (Russell Crowe) to the train that will take him to jail. But getting a remake onto the big screen proved more arduous than expected. Mangold began developing the film for Sony in 2002, though he couldn’t lasso up much interest. ”Nobody wanted to make it,” says Peter Fonda, who plays a member of the posse bringing the villainous Ben Wade to justice. ”The Hollywood axiom is Westerns don’t make money. Well, explain to me Unforgiven, explain to me Dances With Wolves.”

In 2006, Tom Cruise entered talks to play Wade, and it looked like things were finally on track. But just when the project seemed nearly camera-ready, Sony — perhaps unsettled by the negative press swirling around Cruise and the underwhelming performance of Mission: Impossible III — put the project in turnaround, and Cruise moved on. Undaunted, Mangold quickly lined up new financial backers and cast Bale as rancher Dan Evans opposite Crowe, who, he says, had always been his first choice to play Wade. ”There’s only a handful of guys who could pull off this combination of savage rage and brilliant charm,” says Mangold. ”Russell’s got that in spades.”

Crowe also happens to live on a ranch in Australia, so riding horses across the plains of New Mexico wasn’t an issue. Not so for some of the other cast members. ”After a couple of days of cowboy boot camp, from my groin to my knees was the color of a pinot noir,” says Ben Foster, who plays Wade’s sinister second-in-command. ”But you don’t want to be complaining on that set to all those stunt guys.” What would John Wayne think?