3:10 to Yuma

The scenario for the original film version of 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is made clear in the first scene. A stage stops as a herd of cattle crosses its path at a bend in the road, where Ben Wade’s (Glenn Ford) gang awaits. Back up the hillside is Dan Evans (Van Heflin), the rancher who owns the cattle, and his boys. As Wade and his brood rob the coach, with Wade shooting both the driver and one of his own men in the process, Evans is faced with the eternal questions of Western heroism: what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s reasonable when good men are faced with bad men doing bad things?

What makes 3:10 to Yuma unusual for its time is that it treats the answers to these questions as less than self-evident. Indeed, Halsted Welles’ screenplay, adapted from an Elmore Leonard short story, includes a scene whereby Dan Evans actually takes time out to explain himself to his wife, Alice (Leora Dana), before taking Ben Wade to meet the train from which the movie gets its title. As modeled by Will Kane, Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), the classic Western hero acts on his intrinsic sense of right and wrong. He doesn’t deliberate, nor does he explain himself — particularly not to his wife.

Most of 3:10 to Yuma is a cat-and-mouse game between Wade’s gang and the good male citizens of Bisbee. Wade and his band of outlaws almost make it out of town after misdirecting the Marshall (Ford Rainey) regarding the stage, but Wade is drawn to barmaid Emmy (Felicia Farr). He lingers to flirt and, it’s hinted, even gets lucky. The men of the town, virtually all of whom have been deputized, get the drop on him, but have to work out what to do before Wade’s men show up to retrieve him. They decide to get him out of town and onto the 3:10 to Yuma from Contention City. The heart of the film is the relationship between Dan and Ben, which unfolds as Dan stands watch over the outlaw in a Contention hotel room.

Ben Wade is virtually unique among Western villains, particularly from the classic Hollywood period, in that he is a fully developed character. Typically, the Western antagonist is more a signifier of badness than he is a human being. Jack Palance’s black-hatted gunslinger in Shane (1953) represents the archetype. Such characters get, and merit, little screen time. Their only role is to personify the wrong that the hero must face down. They have no point-of-view. They are depthless foils for the protagonist. Ben Wade, by contrast, is a foil with depth and agency. He is, arguably, the central character, despite being the villain.

Wade is introduced as ruthless, but oddly principled. In the movie’s first scene he shoots down two men in cold blood, including one of his own. After this act, he is respectful, even reverent, about the two bodies, and insistent that they be treated properly. This behavior is repeated later by others in the gang, all of whom also appear to see Wade’s killing of one of their number as part of some code to which they all subscribe. His attraction to Emmy, and to women in general, is presented as genuine, and not at all as creepy or predatory. At the same time, there is no suggestion that he will be sticking around for any woman, but he lets Emmy down easy (indeed, she already knows that their relationship is transient, and bids him good-bye with little fuss). He is, on the whole, more charming, more worldly, and smarter than anyone else in the film. He dominates the first 45 minutes of 3:10 to Yuma.

Van Heflin’s Dan Evans emerges as the film’s protagonist in the second 40 minutes. Ben Wade’s nuances would be lost on a traditional, tight-lipped, assured Western hero, and so Evans is no less out of the norm than is his outlaw foil. As in High Noon, which 3:10 to Yuma resembles in its narrative structure and staging, the great mass of civilization does not come off well as the action progresses. Most of the townsmen, particularly outside of tiny Bisbee, are framed as weak-willed, and far too invested in their own skins to see and do what needs to be done. They hide behind their families, using them as excuses as to why they can’t help face down Wade’s gang and deliver the arch criminal to justice.

Dan Evans is right on the edge of this civilizational cowardice. He stands by and watches the initial robbery. He does what he’s told when ordered to wait on retrieving his cattle and gives up his horses to the gang. He doesn’t seem to like these reactions, or, indeed, being in a reactive position, but that doesn’t stop him from rationalizing his choices like everyone else. He has too much to lose. What finally pulls him into helping is the promise of $200 from stage owner Butterfield (Robert Emhardt). Wade perceives these weaknesses and uses their time together in the hotel to work at Dan’s flaws. He tries bribes. He paints bucolic pictures of Dan’s family, and opines about the life Dan’s wife deserves and how hard it must be for her to struggle so much day-to-day. Evans doesn’t just brush these off. He seems to seriously consider the bribes. He gets angry when Wade dares to speak about his family, and especially Alice.

In a genre dominated by heroes marked by a sense of justice, duty, and loyalty so innate that it literally goes without saying, Van Heflin’s Dan Evans is the unusual Western protagonist who actually needs his antagonist to prod him into sorting out right from wrong and to free himself from a settled society’s idea of what’s reasonable for a “family man” to risk for the greater good.

The two men, ultimately, develop a kind of understanding and appreciation of one another. Indeed, the credibility of the film’s ending depends on the two exhibiting a bond that separates them from the other players in the end game, and on Wade’s, not Evans’, code of justice.

The back of the DVD case and related promotional materials tout 3:10 to Yuma‘s status as a “classic” Western of the ’50s, but the movie is, if not exactly obscure, unlikely to have been seen by all but diehard fans of the genre. As such, I’ll refrain here from writing much else about how it ends except to note that in addition to concluding by bringing hero and villain together, 3:10 to Yuma also distinguishes itself by refusing to rehearse one of the central tropes of the Western: what American Studies scholar Richard Slotkin calls “the necessity of violence”.

Western villains use violence capriciously and casually. Western heroes, in contrast, use it judiciously and in the service of justice. However, it is this willingness to use violence when required that, in part, separates such individuals from the mass of men. In 3:10 to Yuma, Dan Evans’ willingness to use violence in the face of savagery is constantly called into question. Furthermore, the film’s narrative is structured around delivering Ben Wade to the proper authorities, not a final showdown. There is, to be sure, a shootout, and men die, but the hero does not slay the villain with a righteous exchange of bullets (it is a mark of 3:10 to Yuma‘s uniqueness that this revelation is not much of a giveaway).

Sony Pictures new “Special Edition” DVD of the film is, actually, not all that special. The extra features are two trailers, one for the 2007 remake and one for the original movie, and an ad for other Westerns in the company’s catalog. The new transfer is an improvement over the one for the 2002 Columbia Tri-Star version, offering a brighter and cleaner picture. However, on balance, it seems that the new DVD exists primarily to take advantage of and promote James Mangold’s remake.

The original film’s moral ambiguities and playfulness with convention are no doubt part of what made it attractive for revisitation. That it is not cherished like other Westerns from the same period means that the risks of remaking it as a theatrical release are less than they would be for a better known film.

Despite its merits, 3:10 to Yuma is ultimately a minor work, a movie that got made largely because the Western once ruled the American box office. The 2007 version may very well prove to be “better” in any number of respects, but it will almost certainly lack the 1957 film’s artistic and narrative significance. At that time, Delmer Daves, Halsted Welles, and Elmore Leonard were working on, and disturbing, hallowed ground.

Today, Westerns only get made every few years, and are more likely to be found on television than at the multiplex. Worse things could come from James Mangold’s film than prompting people to see the initial adaptation of Leonard’s story. If it does well enough, maybe the DVD for the new movie will shed more light on its source than what’s available in the current discs for the earlier film.

RATING 8 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.