3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma ★★★★

"You have to do something, you can't just stand by and watch."

I'll probably turn into a caricature of myself if I say one more time how much I love stories about folks on journeys to accepting ethical agency, but that's what I love and that's what we have here. 3:10 to Yuma (1957 original recipe) is a case study in purely presenting the story of a good man confronted with the opportunity to finally prove his worth. Dan Evans (Ven Heflin), a quaint and well mannered farmer in need of some quick cash to alleviate the pressures of a region-wide drought, accepts a job escorting convicted murderer and outlaw gang leader Ben Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma.

Along the way, Evans is faced with threats to his life if he continues to do the right thing and bribes from Wade to persuade him to do the wrong thing. Even the mayor, the man who paid him to do the job in the first place, and Evans's wife, the primary benefactor of his reward, both eventually tell him he has no obligation to continue, and yet he does. He faces down temptation and rises above it. This is the kind of guileless moralism that has me falling in love with characters like Captain America, and 3:10 to Yuma is a tour de force of the journey to discovering ethical conviction.

"Honest to God, if I didn't have to do it, I wouldn't, but I heard Alex scream. The town drunk gave his life because he believed that people should be able to live in decency and peace together. Do you think I can do less?"

But there's an even more interesting angle on the film. While Dan Evans is obviously the "good guy" (the protagonist) and thus the character with which audiences would be most likely to relate (not to mention that we spend most of the first act with him), Glenn Ford is easily the bigger star, having lead a series of successful noirs and other westerns in the ten years prior to this film (Gilda and The Big Heat, most notably), and he's not only billed before Heflin, he's described as the main character on the packaging ("3:10 TO YUMA stars Glenn Ford as outlaw Ben Wade…").

This presents us with a rather different character arc than that of the good man deciding to continue being good. Instead, we get a bad man gradually trying to renounce his evil ways but feeling trapped within his criminal persona. Rather than a snake offering a series of apples to a fragile Eve, we get the snake's perspective, showing that he was Eve all along and was offering apples because he didn't know of anything else to do and just wanted some human connection. The ethical ordeal has not been for the man who already knew he was good and merely had to prove it, but for the bad man who wanted to be good (for evidence of this, look no further than the "I don't like fat" dinner scene) but couldn't prior to his journey with Evans.

"Some men you see every day for ten years and you never notice; some men you see once and they're with you for the rest of your life."

This second dimension of the film not only makes it more complex in terms of its character development (allowing both sides of the story to be multifaceted and relatable), it adds to the film's thematic examination of the disappearance of the frontier in the face of civilization's growth. If Dan Evans, with his provincial innocence, is the film's representation of the outgrowth of civilization, Ben Wade is the last bastion of the frontier's savagery finally being tempted by the peace of civilization, and his turn as the representation of the frontier's disappearance is both heartwarming and tragic. As the world's last cowboy, he's not just the end of savagery, but the end of freedom as well.

Westerns Ranked

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