By Jacob Mertens.
In film, there is often a feeling of moral certainty. A protagonist has a line drawn for him by cultural expectations and he knows not to cross it, lest he find himself the villain of his own story. However, if any genre has been poised over the years to subvert these expectations it is the western. Perhaps this is due to the lines being drawn too clearly to begin with: the white hats squared off against the black hats, or the outlaws frequenting saloons and brothels while the sheriff spends a quiet night with his family. With rigid conformity comes a thrill at seeing a man’s moral obedience finally bend to the pressures of anger, greed, fear, or any other characteristic that favors humanity over sublime heroics. 3:10 to Yuma, directed by Delmer Daves, succumbs to such a thrill and flirts with genre conventions, as the tale of a deputized rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) escorting the outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to prison takes on a tone of mortal temptation.
Made in 1957, the influence of film noir and the post-war disillusionment can be seen clearly in Daves’ Yuma. The film somehow manages to look dark and foreboding in midday, while scenes during the night take place in a primordial gloom that really comes alive through Criterion’s high definition remaster. Meanwhile, shadows stretch across deep focus stagings of old west shantytowns, all of which seem to lie deserted, giving the environment a pall of impending death. The aesthetic is well chosen, as Dan Evans and company escort Wade in constant fear that his gang will catch up to them in force and free their leader.
Glenn Ford plays the villainous Wade with a sense of honor—killing only when necessary, displaying compassion for his men—and seemingly holds affection for Evans and his family, whom he meets while under captivity. Wade nettles Evans with claims of an inevitable rescue, wishing for him to abandon his mission to keep from harm. Despite these warnings, Evans does not relent, needing the two hundred dollars offered for Wade’s capture to keep his ranch from ruin. As the film goes on, Evans and his ragtag posse evade Wade’s gang, ushering him into a town in which the 3:10 train to Yuma will whisk him into chains. Naturally, Wade grows more desperate, and after making a play for Evans’ gun he attempts to bribe the man. As the amount of proferred money reaches obscene heights, the strain of doubt begins to show in Evans and his resolve weakens. To complicate matters, one of Wade’s men discovers their whereabouts and races off to rejoin the rest of the gang, and now the inevitable rescue becomes inevitable.
The pressure mounts, time closes on the town like a vice grip, and the rancher grows nervous and prone to outbursts at Wade’s continued cool, one-way banter. Evans fights the urge to do the wrong thing, to give in to his petty fear of death and want of greed. He questions how he could trust Wade to deliver on his end of the deal. Then Wade’s gang returns before the clock tolls three. In a quick skirmish, the life of a simple drunk, who likewise joined the posse for the two hundred dollar reward, is snuffed out. Following this senseless death, Evans’ fellow possemen abandon him, feeling the balance of power shift into Wade’s favor.
If not for the death of the drunk, and for his gruesome hanging under the rafters of a rundown hotel, Evans would likely have compromised himself as well. He would have crossed that moral line and found himself in consort with an outlaw and at odds with his own narrative. However, the drunk gave his life for Wade’s capture, and this sacrifice shames Evans into behaving honorably and facing certain death. As the long awaited train approaches, one last shootout unfolds amidst the empty streets. Evans clings to Wade like a shield, dodging bullets and racing for safe passage, and a moral center returns to the film just in time for the climax.
Criterion’s release hits the shelves several years too late to capitalize on the success of James Mangold’s 2007 remake. Still, Daves’ Yuma stands up well enough to time, and its darkness and complexity far outshines its watered down contemporary. Beyond a stellar remaster, the Blu-ray comes with scant special features, but does have a particularly engaging interview with Elmore Leanord, author of the short story Yuma was based on. In the interview, Leanord talks of how he had once idolized and imitated Ernest Hemingway until he realized the man did not have a sense of humor, and that his characters never laughed. He goes on to talk derisively of Hollywood trying to give his characters backstories, stating “All the explaining in movies can be thrown out, I think. There’s no need for it. The audience doesn’t really care.” The interview is delightful but drudges too much in the author’s thoughts of Daves’ film, which could quickly be summarized as “I like it.”
Though simply stated, the author’s appreciation is at least well placed. 3:10 to Yuma excels as a film unafraid to question its hero’s integrity, while giving its villain a contrasting code of honor. Consequently, as viewers watch this overlooked western gem, they forget for a moment who they must align themselves with. This moment of doubt, amplified by Evans’ conflicted turmoil, provokes a moral uncertainty nearly unheard of in classic Hollywood cinema. After all, if the hero seems less a man than the villain he seeks to conquer, do we crave for him to yield to temptations or to finally realize a higher self? The answer may prove less telling than the need for Daves’ film to pose the question in the first place.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
3:10 to Yuma was released by the Criterion Collection on May 14, 2013.