What is the relationship between cinematic heroism and sex appeal? The attractiveness of an actor, both his physicality and charisma seem to obviously overshadow the morality or conviction of the character being played, at least in the eyes of the viewer. Wouldn’t you rather watch Jack Nicholson than Tom Hanks? While both may be integral parts in a film, the one who draws your eye is obvious.
3:10 to Yuma tells the story of a cattle rancher Dan, who gets inadvertently caught up in the affairs of a criminal Ben Wade and his gang of outlaws. Dan is a family man and a hero in the traditional sense of the word. This role was initially offered to Glenn Ford, but upon reading the script he opted to play the criminal instead. Apparently, he was advised during his earlier years as an actor not to shy away from playing the part of a villain and Ben Wade is the much more interesting character. He has all the lines. The rancher Dan is played by Van Helsing, a tall man with an off-putting face. He looks avuncular and weathered. This grizzly visage plays off against Ford’s cherubim handsomeness and devilish grin.
Frequently referred to as a “psychological western”, the film circles feverishly around the tension between Dan and Wade. It opens to a scene of Ben Wade and his gang holding up a stage coach owned by a wealthy man named Butterfield. Dan and his kids are riding up to the scene and they witness the hold up. Ben Wade ends up shooting a member of the stage coach and one of his own men after the latter is held prisoner in an attempt to thwart the hold up. Wade finds Dan and takes his horses from him and his kids.
Upon returning home, Dan is asked by his wife why he didn’t do anything. Thus begins the emasculating tension Dan faces. Ben Wade’s gang rides into town where they drink whiskey at a bar tended by the luminescent and far too sexy for the old west, Emmy. Wade naturally stays to seduce Emmy and this layover causes him to be captured by the townspeople. The thing is, his men get away. The town fears retribution from the gang so Butterfield offers anyone 200 dollars to smuggle Wade away. Dan showed up to town to demand retribution from Wade. Upon seeing his arrest and being in desperate need of cash, he signs up to help transport him.
The first stop on the way to the jail is back at Dan’s ranch. Dan and his wife are accommodating to Wade despite the fact that he is a shackled criminal. They feed him dinner. When Dan steps outside to check on a disturbance, Wade turns the charm on and Dan’s wife’s eyes light up. Dan comes back inside and sadly asks his wife why she sat there, “all big eyed, listening to him”. She does not have an answer as she was clearly swooning.
Dan expresses both sombre strength and needy weakness. He takes Wade to a hotel where they wait for the train- the 3:10 to Yuma that he hopes to put the bandit on. The train will take Wade to prison. The most tense, pivotal scenes happen in this hotel room.
Wade is handcuffed and Dan watches him, shotgun in hand, beads of sweat rolling down his face. The grin never fades from Ben’s face and he constantly throws little jabs at Dan, reminding him that his gang is coming to save him; he is not worried in the least. As time ticks by, Ben offers wade increasing sums of money that vastly outweigh his pay in exchange for freedom. Despite the fact that Dan has indicated he is only doing job for the money, his moral compass prohibits him from accepting. Ben jokes about Dan’s wife. He says he thinks she must have been truly beautiful once, implying that the time spent living with Dan has aged her. Ever resolute, Dan controls his anger and does not succumb to the ribbing.
Masculinity is a troublesome concept. It has gone through many permutations throughout history and in the present day evokes feelings of distrust at the patriarchy. Yet there is something to masculinity. There is something to being a sexually virile man. There is something that it is to be a father, to be a protector of children, a lover of a wife. What makes this western “psychological” are the sparring types of man- young and virile versus old and protective, playful against serious, handsome facing ugly. Should a man be sexy? More to the point, should he be pretty? 3:10 to Yuma seems to say yes on both accounts.
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As with most Criterion Collection releases, this DVD is packed with intriguing extras. There is an interview with Elmore Leonard, the writer of the novel the film was based on. He talks about being a pulp writer, the heyday of the Western, his rise to fame and working with Delmer Daves. For those interested in screenwriting, this is an interesting cross-section of what it was like to be a gun for hire in old Hollywood.
There is also an interview with Peter Ford, Glenn Ford’s son and biographer. Peter delves into Glenn’s life, from his philandering to his politics. This is a fine piece on one of Hollywood’s great actors, and the star of the show.
Finally, there is an essay by critic Kent Jones. An erudite critic, Jones expounds on the virtues of 3:10 to Yuma explaining why it is unjustly overshadowed by films like Rio Bravo . He is a firm defender of the kindness expressed in the film.