When released theatrically, 3.10 to Yuma was well-received by both audiences and critics and it has remained a popular movie over the decades. In 2012 it was selected for the inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress (1). It's safe to say that it's an undisputed genre classic, and yet the movie and its director hardly ever appear on top of people's lists with favorite westerns or western directors. Some have explained this paradox by the nature of Delmer Daves' work and his image as a conventional artist who didn't fit the auteur theory that dominated the professional analysis of (western) movies in the second half of the Twentieth Century. He was neither a maverick nor a subversive, and his characters, even when they are outsiders, are more interested in reconciliation than destruction (2). All these aspects are constituent elements of 3:10 to Yuma.
The movie tells the story of a rancher, Dan Evans (Van Heflin), who accepts to escort an arrested criminal, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to the train that will bring him to Yuma. The $200 reward matches the sum he needs to save his ranch after two years of drought. Wade's men are ready to save their boss, and the train will only arrive the next day, so Evans is forced to spend some 24 hours in one small hotel room with his prisoner. Tension rises when the volunteers who have promised to help him shy away from their task one by one, and Ben Wade starts a psychological war, offering Evans an ever increasing amount of money if he just let him go ...
The script was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, but the escort in Leonard's story is a deputy sheriff, not a farmer, and the reason why he risks his neck while all the odds are against him remains unexplained. By giving the character a ranch and a family, the stakes have become much: early on in the movie we learn that Dan Evans once was a feared gunman, the best shot in the region; he's a man who has given up his gun to become a farmer, a family man, but in this new life, he threatens to become a total failure. His two sons still boast of his reputation as a gunman and his wife seems to blame him for his passivity in the face of their downfall. Evans risks to lose everything: his honor and self-respect, his ranch and his family. He can accept Ben Wade's offer and get away with it (he's even asked by the man who hired him in the first place to give up), but his life will never be the same, his wife and son will never be proud of him again.
The movie was praised for its stark black & white cinematography, tense storytelling and strong performances, but it was also criticized for plot improbabilities. For instance: In the hotel Van Heflin threatens to shoot Ford when he comes closer than 8 feet but he let him sit next to his small children and his wife in his own house! Overall, Dan Evans doesn't do a very good job as a guard and escort: on various occasions (especially on their way to the station) his prisoner could have easily taken the shotgun away from him. He's also an easy target for those snipers on the roof. The surprise ending - Ben Wade all of a sudden helping Dale Evans to fulfill his task - is particularly disconcerting.
Apart from this seeming illogical ending, the movie's shortcomings are easy to overlook. What is so fascinating about it, is the combination of two narrative structures that are hardly ever used at the same time, the so-called 'outsider looking in' and 'the insider looking out'. Heflin is the insider, a family man deeply rooted in society, who catches glimpses from the outside world when Ford tries to bribe him, telling him how easy his financial ('social') problems can be solved; Ford is the outsider, the outlaw, who catches glimpses from the inside word, family life, children, a loving wife, and becomes aware of the fact that he is longing for these things.
The ending - probably dictated by the studio (3) - has been described as a cop-out ending; one of the fiercest statements about it says:
"Now there ain't no way in hell that a criminal would spend all day devising a way to escape, only to be given a clear shot at freedom and squander his chance. No way in hell. That is so nonsensical, it makes a mockery of the audience" (4).
Slovanian philosopher and psycho-analyst Slavoj Zizek, has proposed a different reading of the movie and the psychological battle centre to the plot (5). Usually this is interpreted as an ethical ordeal: Dan Evans is exposed to the temptations of Ben Wade's proposals, but Zizek claims that the one who has suffered an ordeal throughout the movie, is not Dale Evans, but Ben Wade himself, the apparent agent of temptation. In other words, the bandit was putting himself to the test. In this reading, this seemingly illogical ending all of a sudden makes sense. I think Zizek is right, but I have slightly different ideas about Wade's motivations: Zizek thinks Wade is won over by Evans' integrity and sacrifices his freedom for him; in my opinion the true reason for Ben Wade's about face is the attraction of the 'inside world': he wants to become, like his escort, a family man, he desires for a home, and a woman who's waiting there for him.
The narrative offers enough indications to justify this reading, the most important one an early scene with Ben Wade not being able to say goodbye to the local barmaid (played by Felicia Farr); his hesitations (his right hand man, Richard Jaeckel, urges him to hurry up) lead to his arrest and set this whole process of temptation in motion: Wade has already taken the decision to leave his violent life, but he doesn't know it yet, he still has to convince himself. The ordeal he submits himself to, becomes a purification ritual in which he projects his own fears and desires on the other man, who appears to be his opponent, but is in fact his likeness, who's a step ahead of him, somebody who has already made the transformation from an outsider (gunman) to an insider (farmer). Whereas Dan Evans will lose everything if he yields, Ben Wade must give in to get what he desires: after he will have paid his debts (not to society, but to himself) this barmaid will be there, waiting for him.
Elmore Leonard's short story 3:10 to Yuma is avaible in .pdf
* (1) LA Times, National Film Registry selects 25 films for preservation, December 19, 2012 http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/19/entertainment/la-et-mn-national-film-registry-20121217
* (2) See for instance: Kent Jones, 3:10 to Yuma, Curious distances http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2766-3-10-to-yuma-curious-distances
* (3) Paul Simpson, The rough guide to westerns, p. 134 - In Leonard's original story the ending is different: there's a brief shootout, with the deputy marshal killing two of the bandit's men.
* (4) Forum member drinkanddestroy on the Sergio Leone Web Board
* (5) Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the desert of the real, p. 73-74
Zizek has often written about this movie or westerns in general, but always in the context of his socio-cultural and political elucidations; following French philosopher Alain Badiou, he sees westerns as illustrations of ethical courage, about people making an (existential) choice. The plot of 3:10 to Yuma and the behavior of the protagonists is used to comment (in negative terms) on the position of so-called progressive leftists in modern society (both Badiou and Zizek are by the way themselves leftists)