3:10 to Yuma
is a 1957 Delmer Daves-directed western which, perhaps surprisingly for its time period, is not shot in colour or in the Cinemascope ratio. It still manages to look glorious. This is one of Hollywood’s many 1950s attempts to make grown-up westerns and it’s one of the most successful.
It starts with a stagecoach robbery. A real western cliché but don’t panic, this movie becomes steadily less clichéd and more intriguing as it progresses.
The robbery is carried out by the gang led by the notorious Ben Wade (Glenn Ford). The stagecoach driver is killed by Wade although it’s not quite a killing in cold blood.
The robbery is witnessed by farmer Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two sons. Dan makes no attempt to interfere. This is a totally sensible decision. Against twelve armed men all he could succeed in doing is to get himself, and possibly his sons, killed. His sons are a bit disappointed by their father’s lack of heroism and later we get the feeling that maybe his wife Alice (Leora Dane) feels a bit that way herself. And maybe Dan does too.
But this is a western that will try to avoid clichés. Dan is not a coward who has to redeem himself for his cowardice. He does have to redeem himself, but not for cowardice. There’s more a sense that he hasn’t been a great success in life, the farm is struggling and he hasn’t been able to provide for his wife and children the way he feels that a man should.
Capturing Ben Wade proves to be surprisingly easy. Holding on to him will be the problem. He’s been captured lots of times. His gang always busts him loose. Nobody has ever been able to hold him.
The sheriff has a plan. The essence of it is to make sure Wade’s gang doesn’t know where he’s being held, and then to get him on the 3.10 train to Yuma. Yuma should be able to hold him.
The sheriff needs a couple of volunteers to carry out the plan. Nobody is keen to volunteer, except the town drunk Alex Potter. The sheriff doesn’t want him but Alex swears he won’t drink until Wade is on that train. The sheriff wants Dan Evans to volunteer. Dan isn’t interested. He has a wife and kids. Then Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt), the owner of the stagecoach line, offers Dan $200 to do the job. Dan can’t refuse. There’s a drought and his cattle need water and he desperately needs the money to buy water for them.
Dan and Alex only need to keep Wade under wraps until 3.10 the next day. The sheriff is a clever man and his plan is a good one, but Wade and his gang are clever men as well. Maybe cleverer than the sheriff.
Dan is holding Wade in a hotel room in Contention City, waiting for that train. And now the tension starts to build. Wade offers Dan a lot of money to allow him to escape. Ten thousand dollars would tempt any man. Ten thousand dollars would solve all Dan’s problems and allow him to provide a secure future for his wife and sons. And while Wade tempts Dan, the sheriff’s plan starts to fall apart. Wade’s gang is on the way.
One of the best things about this movie is that every single character is initially set up as a stock western character. We know exactly how they will behave. But they don’t behave that way. They behave like real people. They surprise us by defying our expectations but their behaviour always makes sense. Their motivations are realistic. What’s really great is that this doesn’t just apply to the two main characters, Dan and Ben Wade, it applies to every character in the movie.Even the most minor characters.
This is a movie about people who have to make choices and those choices are not simplistic choices between good and evil. There’s also no simple dividing line between heroism and cowardice. Playing the hero is fine but if you have a wife and children dependent on you then heroism can be foolish and irresponsible. Sometimes it takes more moral courage to put your family first and forego the heroics.
The supporting cast includes two of my favourite character actors, Henry Jones and Robert Emhardt, and they both get to play characters who turn out to be rather complex.
Ben Wade is definitely the bad guy and he’s a killer. But he’s also not a stock western villain. He’s not quite an outlaw with a code of ethics but there are some things he just can’t do because he’s not made that way. Early on, when Dan and his sons witness the stagecoach robbery, the obvious, simple, easy, safe thing to do would be to kill them. This never even occurs to Wade. It would be a lowdown mean thing to do. Ben Wade isn’t a good man but he’s not lowdown and mean. He does take their horses, but he makes sure the horses are returned to them. Again, stealing horses from a struggling farmer would be lowdown and mean. For Wade killing is sometimes an unavoidable necessity, and he feels no regrets or remorse, but he gets no pleasure from killing. When he’s captured he’s prepared to kill in order to escape, but he’d prefer to escape without killing anyone.
Glenn Ford’s low-key acting approach contrasts perfectly with Van Heflin’s emotional angst-ridden performance. Different acting styles, but equally effective.
The worst thing about the Production Code was that it pretty much demanded predictable endings. Ten minutes into a movie you generally know how it will end, because the Production Code only allows for one ending, with good triumphant, the bad guy punished and the bad girl dead. But 3:10 to Yuma
manages to come up with a genuinely unexpected ending which still manages to stay within the letter of the Code. Not everyone likes the ending, but at least it’s not the ending that genre expectations lead us to expect.
This is a movie that looks superb. Daves has been criticised for his love of crane shots but personally I have no problems with directors who try to make every scene visually interesting. Daves has put some thought into every shot composition. The black-and-white cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr is just right. This is a dry harsh country caught in the grip of drought. The starkness of black-and-white conveys that in a way that colour could not have done.
The movie was based on an Elmore Leonard short story. Leonard liked the movie, but hated the 2007 remake.3:10 to Yuma
is one of the great westerns. Very highly recommended.