Lost in the Movies: 3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma

The images in 3:10 to Yuma have a beautiful clarity - open skies, sloping dunes, mountains looming behind makeshift towns. Variations of these images can be found in all Westerns, but here there's a simultaneously dreamy and sharp quality - the purity of the compositions and the setting are both meditative and focused. There's something primal and direct and right about the visuals, yet they also suggest something greater, something beyond, intangible in the desert air. This complements a story which is morally clear at any given moment yet morally ambiguous when taken as a whole.

Part of what makes the Western genre so compelling is its elemental nature. Going beyond the cliched meaning of that phrase (the sparse locations, the white hat/black hat delineations), this means that moral fundamentals are allowed to play out sans the usual superstructures which make characters' decisions for them. In an urban crime film, the cop is a cop, it's his job and existential questions of its purpose can be largely irrelevant in the face of social pressure. Each of us, in most movies as in life, has our societal function and we move about performing in our roles confident that the Big Machine keeps everything running according to schedule. There's comfort in being a cog.

But out west, at least in the frontierlands of filmdom, civilized man must dredge up his primitive past and confront these moral dilemmas and social quandaries from a fresh perspective. 3:10 to Yuma, released in 1957 and described in the TCM broadcast I saw as the "last of the black-and-white big-screen Westerns" (of course The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was yet to come, but somehow that movie has never felt "big-screen"), is not black-and-white morally. It belongs to that breed of postwar westerns, not as explicitly revisionist as The Wild Bunch but poking and prodding the genre's conventions and bringing to the fore its fundamental themes.

The actual 3:10 to Yuma is a train, to which deputized cattle hand Dan Evans (Van Heflin) is supposed to deliver wily outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford). Along the way to the train, Wade must spend the night at Dan's house, charming his wife and baffling Evans as to his intentions. Then Wade is transported to a hotel in town, where a nervous countdown ensues, tension building as Wade's henchmen show up to surround the hotel and unleash violence on anyone who stands in their way.

The questions 3:10 poses are moral and social ones: what is the duty of the law? What does a man owe to society vs. his family and himself? Is there a give and take between law and outlaw? Is the evil man fundamentally evil, or are there only shades of grey to be parsed, choices to be made or not made, forced circumstances which lead us down separate paths, obscuring the fact that we're all fundamentally complex people? Wade is often polite, honest, and dignified. He does not mince words about his escape plan, giving Evans the option of letting him walk free (even offering him money to do so). In this, he would seem to epitomize honor amongst thieves.

But he's also ruthless, and cruel, and one is never sure to what extent his manners and "honor" are genuine, and to what extent they are bullying manipulations. When he sits at a dinnertable with Evans and his family, who is he exactly? Evans seems embarrassed to have him there, but he's there nonetheless and Wade makes the most of this awkward situation, rubbing everyone's faces in the fact that here, at this moment, he's their guest. Watching this scene unfold, I was reminded of Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand in the 80s, which is hardly a unique historical occurrence. As 3:10, and geopolitical history along with it, remind us, life has a way of interfering with and disrupting our neat moral diagrams. Distinctions are squishier, more fluid than we'd like to acknowledge.

Or are they? We've seen Wade kill before, and after getting comfortable with him at the table (he's really not so bad, we tell ourselves) we see him and his honchos kill again. At the end of the movie, Evans' choice seems clear: fold in to Wade's pressures (which are as much a test of his manhood and rectitude as they are benevolent acts of charity), or die with dignity. Though the movie endorses his decision to go through with the potentially fatal transport of Wade to the 3:10, it's noteworthy that, while Wade's decisions and actions make sense from a selfish, common-sense perspective, Evans - for all his nobility - is acting out an abstraction in defiance of his duty to wife and kids.

And then, to complicate matters further, it's Wade who saves Evans, and sacrifices himself, allowing them to get onto the train with Evans eluding his would-be assassins (and Wade eluding his would-be rescuers). Evans is astonished - was this a moral awakening on Wade's part? A tip of the hat to a brave man? Fair play by a poker player who's been outbluffed? As they ride off into the desert, they grin together and shake their heads as if an exciting game had just been completed. In choosing the path of moral clarity, Evans only serves to point out how elusive any moral distinction really is.


James Hansen said...

Nice review for a movie I have yet to see. You've been on a streak of movies I haven't seen lately, so I've been stumped for stuff to add! I still love reading them though...gives me some good perspective/insight going in. Keep up the good work!

James Hansen said...

Let me rephrase that...stupid clarity in writing...

Lately, you have been reviewing a streak of movies that I have not seen so I've been stumped for things to say...

There we go. Sounds much better... :)

Joel Bocko said...

Did you see the remake? I heard it was pretty good (though I also heard it was not, more as a minority opinion). I generally try to see the original first out of a (misplaced?) sense of guilt so I guess now I can see the recent version and figure out how it holds up.

Hope I didn't spoil anything for you. I try to put those spoiler alerts in there but sometimes it gets tiresome and I just hope "then in the end" is enough of a nudge to stop the spoiler-wary in their tracks.

Graham said...

The remake is quite good, although it's also problematic. It amplifies both the traditional and the revisionist nature of the original film, and that makes it somewhat problematic, although very fun to watch. It also amps up the plot elements, adds new characters, and way ramps up the violence - it just packs in more. That may be a turnoff for some, but it worked great for me.

Perhaps most importantly, it has one of Russell Crowe's best performances - maybe his best since Insider. And that, for me, is saying something.

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