3:10 to Yuma (1957)
“Drink the whisky… Love the woman… Try to stay alive till the 3:10 pulls out of town!”
Director: Delmer Daves
Cast: Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, Felicia Farr
Synopsis: Broke small-time rancher Dan Evans is hired by the stagecoach line to put big-time captured outlaw leader Ben Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma but Wade’s gang tries to free him.
WARNING – This review contains SPOILERS!
Filmed at a time when director Delmer Daves was at the top of his game — his other mid-to-late-fifties efforts include Jubal (1956) (which he also scripted), Cowboy (1958), and The Hanging Tree (1959) — 3:10 to Yuma is arguably one of the best westerns of the fifties. It is all the more remarkable to note, then, that the taut script supplied by Halsted Welles represented only his second film screen writing effort following his adaptation of The Lady Gambles eight years earlier, and was to be the second of only four departures he would make from writing for TV.
Van Heflin plays Dan Evans, an impoverished cattle farmer on the brink of ruin due to drought. Out with his two young sons, Evans witnesses the robbery of a stagecoach by Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his gang, and does nothing as the stagecoach driver is killed during the course of the robbery. Later, when Wade is captured in the town of Bisbee, Evans agrees to guard the outlaw in return for the sum of $200, which he needs to buy six months water rights for his farm. Holed up in a hotel room, waiting for the arrival of the 3:10 from Yuma, and with his support gradually falling away, Evans finds his resolve tested by Wade’s cunning psychological mind games…
It’s only natural that comparisons will be drawn between this movie and Fred Zinnemann,s High Noon (1952), but while the similarities are undeniably there, they are only superficial. There is no allegorical sub-text to Daves’ story, and the focus is not so much on the consequences of social cowardice as on the importance of principles, and how adherence to these principles, however difficult, must result in victory over those forces that threaten them. It’s a message that may seem outdated in these days of instant gratification — but it is that very outdatedness that, paradoxically, makes it as relevant today as it was in the fifties.
At the beginning of the movie Evans and Wade are polar opposites, diverse characters who gradually come together as the film progresses to discover they have at least one thing in common. Evans, the impoverished farmer, is initially portrayed as a weak, impotent character, standing by helplessly as his cattle die, and doing nothing as he watches a stagecoach being robbed and a man murdered. Conversely, Wade is a symbol of virility and power; he is the man who shoots the stagecoach driver (and his accomplice, whom the driver is using as a shield), and is captured only because he dallies too long in Bisbee to bed the lonely, pretty, barmaid. Evans is the epitome of society, while Wade operates outside of its laws and has nothing but a vaguely amused disdain for all that Evans represents. While Evans is initially compelled to guard Wade by the same thing that drives the outlaw — money — that becomes secondary to his principles and the importance that they be upheld for the sake of his children as his ordeal continues. Gradually, it is this to which Wade responds, spurred by the fact that Evans saved his life at a point when it would have been easier for him to allow Wade to be killed.
Daves and Welles manage to wring every ounce of suspense out of the kind of situation that has so often fallen flat in the hands of less capable talents. We feel Evans’ torment as Ford nonchalantly offers him the kind of money it would take him a lifetime to earn to let him go. Evans sweats and paces and jumps at shadows while Wade calmly lies on a bed, with the brim of his hat pulled low over his eyes, so that we feel that it is Evans, not Wade, who is imprisoned. This sequence in the hotel room lasts for maybe no more than 45 minutes but, by the time they finally leave, we feel as if we have been in there with Evans for the entire four hours. Only the final scenes, while well-handled, fall short of the standards that Daves and Welles have set themselves. It’s almost as if Welles has written himself into a dead-end, and struggles to find a satisfactory resolution without resorting to formulaic gun-play. Nevertheless, although the ending is weaker than the rest of the movie, it fails to spoil the viewers’ enjoyment.
Glenn Ford is completely believable playing against type as the cool, charismatic, Ben Wade, signifying just how subtle a talent he was. Heflin, in a role for which he was perhaps a little too old, expertly portrays his character’s struggle against Ford’s alternating veiled threats and bribes as he battles against an increasing sense of isolation. There are times when you genuinely believe that he is just a few words away from crumbling, and it is Heflin’s ability to communicate this internal struggle to the audience that adds such great depth to his character.
t seems that 3:10 to Yuma will never share a stage with the acknowledged classics of the genre, which is a shame because it surpasses many of them. Perhaps, because it eschews many of the genre staples — gunfights, etc — it has forsaken any chance it may have had; nevertheless, Daves has crafted a sublime piece of work that stands today as probably his greatest movie, making all the sadder the subsequent swift decline in the quality of his output from the early sixties.
(Reviewed 22nd November 2008)